Speaker: Dave Cox
Topic: The Aftermath of the MOX Shipments
Location: J.L. Gray Centre
Deep River, Ont.
Date: Thursday, November 9, 2000 (8:00 pm)

Summary published in North Renfrew Times,
November 15, 2000:

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chalk River: The MOX Story

by Jeremy Whitlock

It sounded like the plot a Hollywood political farce, but it's all too true. On Thursday, Nov. 9 the Canadian Nuclear Society presented Dave Cox of AECL, speaking on "The Aftermath of the MOX Shipments".

The subject was the highly controversial importation of MOX test fuel from Russia and the U.S. this year. The fuel is part of an international program to test the feasibility of using CANDU reactors to dispose of tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium from the former Cold War belligerents. The plutonium was declared surplus in compliance with disarmament treaties.

Mr. Cox is the manager of the "Parallex" project, as the MOX test is called. He began by summarizing the program's origins in 1994 when AECL first conducted its feasibility studies on using MOX fuel from warheads. This lead to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's offer, at the 1996 Moscow Summit, to use Canadian reactors in aid of global disarmament initiatives.

The Parallex project was born when the government then asked AECL to test the technical feasibility behind the proposal. Although AECL has over 25 years' experience with MOX fuel, including manufacturing three tonnes of MOX fuel for its own experiments at Chalk River, the unique origin of the Russian and U.S. MOX fuel required the additional tests.

What followed should have been a routine acquisition of a small quantity (several hundred grams) of test material for AECL. Instead, by government decree, the process became a public spectacle and a lighting rod for anti-nuclear sentiment.

Mr. Cox explained how the full weight of public and regulatory intervention was brought to bear upon the project. Although public sensitivity to the subject was the chief incentive, it became obvious that anti-nuclear sentiment within the bureaucracy was also playing a role. The Parallex project became not only a test of technical feasibility, but of public acceptance as well.

Despite AECL's standing Emergency Response Assistance Plan, appropriate for its thousands of other shipments of radioactive material, a specific plan was required for each of the Russian and U.S. shipments. Public consultation was necessary, including open houses in affected communities along each route. Mr. Cox reported that public reaction was generally favourable from this phase of the project.

Nevertheless, a vociferous anti-nuclear lobby incited over a hundred municipal and native councils to officially denounce the project, in both Canada and the U.S. Late in November 1999 it became clear that neither the U.S. nor Russian shipment would be feasible as originally planned. Protestors had vowed to block the U.S. MOX travelling from Sault Ste. Marie, while native leaders promised to block the St. Lawrence Seaway to prevent the Russian MOX arriving at Cornwall.

The government became concerned about the effect of these protests on both public safety and, in the case of the Seaway, economic activity. The detailed account given by Mr. Cox left little doubt that these concerns were valid. An alternate plan was clearly required if the Parallex project was to continue.

The alternate plan, as many are aware, was to transfer the U.S. MOX fuel to helicopter at the Sault Ste. Marie border and fly the material to Chalk River. The operation on January 14, 2000 required the use of four helicopters in total, in order to satisfy security and emergency response requirements.

A public outcry followed, mainly due to the lack of "openness" behind the change in plans. Two lawsuits were filed, one against the provincial government based on WHMIS violations, and the other against Transport Canada based on a violations of the "principles of fair governance". Both suits were eventually dropped.

Attention was also made to the fact that the shipping containers were illegal in the U.S. for air transport of plutonium (only land transport was used for the U.S. leg of the journey). Mr. Cox pointed out how the containers are legal for such use in every jurisdiction in the world except the U.S., and that the U.S. law is actually in the process of changing to conform with international regulations.

The general success of the U.S. shipment lead to the decision to use air transport for the Russian shipment as well. In this case the Canadian Dept. of National Defence was brought on board, and a Russian cargo company was selected after extensive auditing.

Again, there were a number of delays in making this change in plans. Included was an extensive regulatory review of the shipping container, a 28-day public comment period on the Emergency Response Plan, and a significant increase in Transport Canada's planning requirements mid-way through the public comment process.

After clearing these hurdles, approval was given and the flight from Moscow to Trenton was made on September 25, 2000. The photos of the three barrels lashed to the deck of a gargantuan Antonov cargo plane (the largest civilian aircraft) were both amusing and symbolic of the prevailing farce.

Over two hundred tonnes of fuel were burned to fly the 15 kg of MOX fuel to Trenton from Moscow.

The first irradiation of the MOX fuel in the NRU reactor begins in mid-December, and will continue for two to three years. The final answer on the feasibility of the material could take three to four years to learn.

Dave Cox concluded with a summary of international developments to date. Global support has been expressed for the U.S.-Russian program that Canada is participating in, most notably at the July G8 summit in Okinawa. Funding is a major issue, to be discussed formally at the next G8 meeting in summer 2001.

The U.S. have since decided not to dispose of any of its surplus plutonium in Canadian reactors, but the Russians still have a need for external help. Canadian participation would mean development of a funding model, technical evaluations, regulatory interaction, a full public environmental review, and of course a strong political will to proceed.