Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Harper (once again) displays dangerous ignorance on nuclear file

Whooee! Well, friends an' foes, Pryminister Harper was up on his hindlegs yammerin' about nuclear safety an' how Canada's gonna help save the world by sendin' 50% of our stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU, i.e. weapons-grade uranium) over to the USA.

In fairness, Harper did mention that he's not an expert with regard to nuclear technology. That, however, does not excuse the PM from making hugely inaccurate statements or from committing Canada to a course of action which could have disastrous consequences for future generations.

Harper was somewhat unclear about why we are only returning 50% of our stockpile but he was unequivocal (condescending, even) when he stated that 'Of course, we don't use highly enriched uranium for reactor fuel anymore.'

Wrong, again, Mr. Nuclear Physicist. The Chalk River NRU that makes medical isotopes does, indeed, use HEU as its fuel.

But, Harper may actually be partly correct. Thanks to years of mismanagement and the fact that it is about 10 years past its projected decommissioning date, the Chalk River reactor is out of service, so Harper may be technically correct that we aren't using HEU. The leaky reactor is undergoing a major repair job and is expected to limp back into service, possibly in June.

It is hard to believe that Harper is unaware that Canada has special dispensation under a side agreement to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that enables us to purchase weapons-grade uranium to fuel Chalk River. The issue made news in January when AECL ordered a fresh supply of HEU from the US.

While Harper's ignorance (or obfuscation) is a serious enough problem, the fact that Canada is returning used fuel to the country of origin is very significant, precedent setting... and foreboding. Under terms of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), all used nuclear fuel is to be repatriated to the country of origin. This is a big deal.

Canada is the world's second largest producer of Uranium (behind Australia) and the world's biggest exporter of uranium. Absurd as it sounds, the GNEP calls for used nuclear fuel that originally came from Canada to be returned to Canada. In case anyone is not aware, used nuclear fuel is 1000x more radioactive than unused fuel and must be kept in a secure location until it becomes harmless. That will take approximately 250,000 years. Quite a long term commitment with which our PM is saddling countless future generations of Canadians!

Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has only just begun looking for a suitable and willing host location for a Canadian nuclear waste repository. If the repository is ever built, it is designed to handle waste from the increasingly small number of Canadian nuclear power plants generating waste. How are we supposed to handle the thousands of tonnes of radioactive, toxic waste that could be returned to us under terms of the GNEP?

Canada: Energy Superpower or America's Nuclear Waste Dump?