Peace Magazine: To Extract or Not to Extract

Peace Magazine

To Extract or Not to Extract

• published Jan 08, 2024 • last edit Jan 08, 2024

A Globe and Mail article raises the issue of why the Canadian government has provided tens of millions of dollars to a New Brunswick company, Moltex, to “reprocess “ spent fuel from CANDU reactors, even though the government has yet to decide whether to allow this practice.

Reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium and fabricate it into new reactor fuel is a longstanding nuclear industry dream. But plutonium is also the main ingredient in nuclear weapons. U.S. experts have warned Canada that its support for spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium extraction will undermine the global nuclear weapons nonproliferation regime.

A “modernized “ Radioactive Waste and Decommissioning Policy, released in March 2023, says that reprocessing “is not presently employed in Canada, and so is outside the scope of this Policy. “ This displeased civil society groups led by Nuclear Waste Watch, and more than 7,000 individual Canadians who had commented on the draft policy and had asked the federal government to include a clear ban on reprocessing in the final policy.


On November 17, 2023, Nuclear Waste Watch organized a round table with government officials, civil society representatives, and U.S. and Canadian experts on nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste. Topics discussed were policy, waste, and security matters related to reprocessing. Government participants stated that a response had been to the letter from U.S. experts but provided no supporting evidence. They dismissed concerns about a reprocessing policy that has been drafted by the CANDU Owners Group and distributed among government officials, as reported in the Globe and Mail article.

Paul McKay ‘s meticulously researched book, Atomic Accomplice, documents Canada ‘s deep involvement in plutonium and nuclear weapons research. Canada gave India the CIRUS (Canada India Reactor Utility Services) reactor that provided the plutonium used in India ‘s first nuclear detonation in 1974.

Canada exported plutonium for U.S. weapons production for two decades, and plutonium research at the government ‘s Chalk River Laboratories continues to this day. Texas-based Fluor and Jacobs, who manage nuclear weapons facilities in the U.S. and U.K., also operate the Chalk River facility in partnership with SNC-Lavalin (now AtkinsR√©alis) under a $10+ billion federal contract. Their so-called Canadian National Energy Alliance is building a taxpayer-funded, billion-dollar Advanced Nuclear Materials Research Centre to develop “advanced fuel fabrication concepts “, including plutonium fuels.

Reprocessing has a troubled history, with a legacy of accidents, worker deaths, unplanned criticality events, excessive worker radiation exposures, fires, chemical explosions, and radioactive contamination of lands and waters. A 1996 International Atomic Energy Agency document, Significant incidents in nuclear fuel cycle facilities, reviewed 58 accidents, 37 of which occurred in reprocessing plants.

All commercial and military reprocessing is done at present using the “PUREX “ (plutonium uranium extraction) process. Dissolution of spent fuel in nitric acid is followed by a solvent extraction involving tributyl phosphate and kerosene, leaving highly radioactive fission products in a liquid form that is extremely difficult to manage.


A December 1950 accident at Chalk River killed one worker and injured several others when an evaporator used to concentrate liquid fission product wastes exploded. Another reprocessing facility at Chalk River was shut down in 1954 following several leak events. Equipment was buried on site, spreading groundwater contamination via a plume of fission products that is still discharging into a tributary of the Ottawa River.

At the Hanford site in Washington, which produced the plutonium used in the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, leaking tanks of reprocessing wastes are contaminating groundwater and the nearby Columbia River.

The worst-ever reprocessing accident occurred in 1957 at Russia ‘s secret Mayak weapons production facility. A large tank of liquid reprocessing waste exploded, spreading radioactive fallout over hundreds of square kilometers, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people, and leaving a large area uninhabitable. The Russian government was able to cover up this accident until the 1980s. Reprocessing wastes had been dumped in local lakes and rivers before the tanks were built.

Dissolving irradiated fuel in nitric acid releases gaseous waste products. These include radioactive forms of krypton, xenon, hydrogen, carbon, and iodine. Adding reprocessing to the nuclear fuel chain significantly increases total radioactive releases to the atmospheric environment. This represents a new health burden for workers and members of the public.

A commercial reprocessing facility that operated from 1966 to 1972 in West Valley, New York, about 50 kilometers south of Buffalo, produced over two million liters of liquid high-level waste. It continues to be the site of expensive clean-up efforts, with annual expenditures of around $100 million and no estimated date for closure. Former workers are plagued by cancers and have been paid over $200 million in compensation.


U.S. President Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing of spent fuel in 1977, and halted construction of a facility that would have allowed plutonium and uranium to be used in mixed oxide, or “MOX “ fuel. Most countries are abandoning reprocessing. The U.K., Germany, and Switzerland have ceased using MOX fuel in their power reactors. At present, only France and Russia extract power reactor plutonium for military and non-military purposes, including weapons production and fabrication of new power reactor fuels.

While Japan still pursues the plutonium dream, a Japan Times article notes that its Rokkasho reprocessing plant “has been delayed for years amid an endless series of technical glitches resulting in huge cost overruns since construction began in the early 1990s. “

The Guardian reported recently that the US is ramping up production of plutonium pits ‘ for nuclear weapons. Frank Von Hippel, one of the authors of the letter to Canadian authorities, is quoted as saying “Nuclear war is a probability thing, and it ‘s been 80 years, a lifetime, since we had one to deal with one. So people have assumed the probability was close to zero, which it isn ‘t unfortunately. “

Plutonium production is an unavoidable result of nuclear reactor operations. However, extracting that plutonium from spent fuel makes no sense from an economic, environmental, or security perspective.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired ecologist who studies the environmental impacts of nuclear power.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.1 Jan-Mar 2024
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