"Plutonium Phobia" Drives MOX Oppositionby Jeremy Whitlock
Dave Cox is the Project Manager for AECL's widely-publicized MOX experiment, the subject of CBC documentaries, town council resolutions, newspaper editorials, grass-roots protests, and general coffee-room conversation over that past few months. Cox's presentation covered the experiment's origins, current status, and uncertain future. The impression is certainly that this venture has reached the status of 90% politics and 10% technology. It is buffeted by waves of rhetoric and widely misunderstood by the public, although Cox reports favorable results from his consultation efforts around the province.
The project is known as PARRALEX, or Parallel Experiment, which underscores its primary intent as a parallel feasibility test for the destruction of both Russian and American military plutonium. The full scale proposal, involving the burning of tonnes of surplus plutonium from both countries in one or more CANDU reactors, remains a long term notion with tonnes more political baggage and an unclear potential for Canadian participation. Cox's role is simply to implement the feasibility test at Chalk River Laboratories, taking but one of many steps towards the larger endeavour, years away if at all.
Cox described how the surplus plutonium comes from the destruction of thousands of nuclear warheads in both countries, under the START I disarmament treaty. START II and III are in the wings, suggesting that hundreds of tonnes more surplus plutonium may be added to the stockpile in the future. In 1994 the U.S. National Academy of Science resolved that both immobilization and MOX-burning of this material were desirable options, and a joint study soon afterwards by AECL and Ontario Hydro examined the potential for CANDU's involvement.
Five years later, Chalk River Laboratories is preparing to conduct a test irradiation of a minute amount of the material, while a political tempest has grown far out of proportion to the facts of the matter. This is despite the fact, Cox says, that a wealth of MOX experience exists around the world, including at AECL where three tonnes of MOX fuel have been manufactured and tested over the decades.
Cox also described how, regardless of the roughly 800,000 radioactive shipments that occur in Canada each year, and regardless of the minimal regulations concerning this type of material (sans politics), all the stops have been pulled out -- including specific emergency response plans, satellite tracking, physical security escort, and a radiological response escort. The irony, says Cox, is that the unnecessarily extreme safety and security precautions enhance the public's perception of danger, and that is the catch-22 that he has been facing at town meetings.
Additionally, the public is frustrated by a perceived lack of consultation, a perceived federal commitment to the full-scale MOX-burning project, and what Cox calls "plutonium phobia". Looking ahead, with native leaders threatening civil disobedience and more town councils passing resolutions against the shipments, Cox questions whether the government will have the will to proceed. As politicians are fully aware, there is no hot potato like one heated by nuclear energy.