G8 countries dominate the world’s nuclear economy. The nuclear weapons and energy programmes of G8 countries make up the majority of the world’s nuclear technology. The influence of the nuclear industry and the military implications of nuclear technology have made nuclear issues a part of the agenda at recent G8 summits.


History

Nuclear power has its origins in the development of nuclear weapons. The race to develop the nuclear bomb during World War II left the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada with a nuclear capacity. After the war, Russia and France developed their own nuclear weapons programs. Development of nuclear power programs in Germany, Italy and Japan shortly followed. Today, G8 countries are the most industrialized and “nuclearized” countries in the world.

The influence of the nuclear industry on G8 states is indisputable. Despite the fact that nuclear power has been excluded from the Kyoto protocol as a clean energy source, the nuclear industry and some G8 governments continue to extol the virtues of nuclear energy as a “solution” to climate change. Continued G8 support for nuclear energy syphons billions of dollars away from the development of cheaper, cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.

Nuclear energy – a dying industry

Having developed and subsidized their nuclear weapons and energy programmes for the past 50 years, G8 nations are today faced with how to deal with the leftovers. Despite the promise of the ‘peaceful atom,’ the world’s nuclear energy industry is in decline. Reactor construction is at a historic low. No reactors have been sold in North America since 1978 and only 6 reactors are being built in any of the G8 countries. Nuclear energy has proven itself to be too expensive and inefficient to compete with other sources of energy. In spite of this decline, G8 government continue to look for ways to prop up and support a nearly redundant industry.

Propping up an industry in decline – G8 support for nuclear exports

With no new reactor sales at home, G8 countries have sought to prop up their domestic nuclear industries by financing foreign projects through export credit agencies (ECAs). Of the 25 nuclear plants under construction in the world today, 14 are backed by financing from a G8 export credit agency, amounting to about $10 billion (U.S.). ECAs provide assistance at bargain-basement bank rates and typically have even weaker environmental and public accountability requirements than would be required for domestic projects.

Canada’s history of nuclear export is indicative of G8 policies. Argentina, China, India, Pakistan, Romania, South Korea and Taiwan have all bought reactors from Canada. Sales have been shrouded in secrecy, fraught with bribery scandals and supported by substantial federal government loans. In November 1996, the Canadian government guaranteed a $1.5 billion loan for the sale of two CANDU reactors to China (the largest in Canadian history) through its Export Development Corporation (EDC). The loan was made on the “Canada Account” and carried on the books of the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Nuclear loans are to big and risky for for the EDC or private sector institutions to handle without the use of public money and government backing.

The MOX fuel solution – from nuclear weapons to nuclear waste

G8 countries are now faced with plutonium waste leftovers from their military and energy programmes. Since the end of the cold war, the world’s two nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, have been in the process of planning to dismantle some of their nuclear weapons. How to deal with the tonnes of plutonium ‘triggers’ from these weapons has been an ongoing debate amongst G8 countries.

At a special summit on nuclear safety in 1996, the G8 proposed to dispose of American and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons plutonium by using them as fuel for nuclear reactors in the form of “MOX” (mixed-oxide) fuel. In Canada, the Chrétien government was especially supportive of the weapons plutonium plan, having proposed to use American and Russian plutonium as fuel in CANDU reactors and having already arranged for a ‘test burn’ at the Chalk River nuclear station in Ontario

Transport of the material for the “test burn” took place in January 2000. In spite of First Nations concerns and hundreds of communities in Ontario and Quebec having passed resolutions against the importation and transport of weapons plutonium fuel, the Chrétien government arranged to have U.S. weapons plutonium fuel clandestinely flown to Chalk River by helicopter. The transportation aspects of the plan, involving air transport and sea or land travel over great distances increase the risk of plutonium being released into the environment by accident, attack or theft for terrorist purposes.

An accidental or deliberate release of material containing plutonium would have serious consequences. The toxicity of plutonium when inhaled is so great, that even a quantity measured in micrograms could pose a lethal health hazard. Moreover, only a few kilograms of separated plutonium is needed to make a nuclear bomb. Equally problematical (and contrary to the impression left by proponents of the plan), plutonium would not be entirely eliminated after its use as MOX fuel in a reactor.

Promoted by its supporters in the Canadian, American and Russian governments as a ‘swords into ploughshares’ initiative, the MOX plan could serve as a gateway to a global plutonium economy. The plan ignores the continued generation of plutonium in both military and civilian nuclear reactors as well as statements in Russia and elsewhere that plutonium could be a potential source of revenue generation. If Canada were to agree to the use of its nuclear reactors for the processing of weapons plutonium fuel, it could end up serving as a central repository for large volumes of plutonium waste (the G8-CANDU MOX plan alone envisions tonnes of weapons plutonium fuel being used over a period of 20 to 25 years).

With the collective plutonium waste from energy production in G8 countries soon to surpass that of the world’s nuclear arsenals, the disposal of plutonium waste is one of the most important problems of our times. To rid the world of the threat of nuclear war and terrorism, the proliferation of plutonium must be stopped.

The United States has proposed that the original ‘G7’ countries (this would exclude Russia, which is part of the ‘G8’) provide billions of dollars in financing over a ten year period to deal with nuclear security issues, including the disposition of ‘surplus’ weapons plutonium.

There are potentially cheaper and more effective alternatives for dealing with Russian and American weapons plutonium stocks, such as “immobilization” which renders plutonium virtually inaccessible for weapons use and does not involve its transportation from the United States or Russia. Of the G8 countries, only Germany is supporting this option.

(Immobilization involves a process referred to as ‘vitrification’ where plutonium is combined with high level radioactive waste and encased in a glass or ceramic mixture. The high level of radioactivity from the solid waste mixture would make it impossible to approach the waste without some form of sophisticated protection. The main hazards presented by exposure to plutonium are significant, but longer term, arising primarily through inhalation).

While offering potentially greater security and helping to reduce global traffic in plutonium, the immobilization option will not necessarily protect future generations indefinitely. Over a period of decades to centuries, the vitrified waste mixture becomes less intensely radioactive and the plutonium more accessible. Plutonium remains dangerously radioactive (and thus both an inhalation hazard and potentially weapons usable) for over 250,000 years.

There is only one responsible position that the G8 countries can take: Phase out their nuclear energy and military programmes, stop the financing of nuclear reactors, and collaborate to secure and monitor the world’s existing plutonium stockpiles using the safest possible immobilization techniques.

Action:

Phase out nuclear power!

Ask the Prime Minister to end the subsidies to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL), and stop providing loans for nuclear exports through the Export Development Corporation. Tell the Prime Minister that G8 export credit agencies should be transparent and adhere to comprehensive, publicly accountable, environmental and safety standards. Tell him that Canada should not accept any more weapons plutonium for ‘test burns’ or other uses in CANDU reactors. Canada should insist that vitrification is used as the method for dealing with existing military plutonium stockpiles, and refuse to fund the dangerous “MOX option”.


Your message can be sent to:

Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada
K1A 0A6
fax: 613-941-6900

email: pm@pm.gc.ca




References

1. Financing Disaster: How the G8 Fund the Global Proliferation of Nuclear Technology, EU-Enlargement Watch, Eco-Defense, NIRS-WISE, Sierra Club of Canada et al., London (U.K.), June 2001

2. David. H. Martin, Financial Meltdown: Federal Nuclear Subsidies to AECL, Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, Ottawa (Canada), November 2001



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