Who’s minding the nuclear file? Oversight needed for New Brunswick’s risky plutonium plan via NB Media Co-op

$50.5 million in federal taxpayer dollars for controversial technology to “recycle” used nuclear fuel

by Susan O’Donnell and Gordon Edwards

Pierre Elliot Trudeau banned the extraction of plutonium from used nuclear fuel in Canada. Yesterday Justin Trudeau lifted the ban under a smokescreen of Orwellian doublespeak.

On March 18 in Saint John, the federal government handed $50.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private company from the UK, Moltex Energy, to develop a technology that proposes to extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel from the Point Lepreau reactor on the Bay of Fundy.

During the announcement, presenters including Premier Higgs referred to the technology as “recycling,” despite the fact that less than one percent of the material in the used nuclear fuel will be available as fuel for the Moltex reactor. Experts on nuclear waste have raised alarms about the process, pointing out that the process will create new, toxic liquid radioactive waste streams that will be very difficult and expensive to manage.


Extracting the plutonium from Point Lepreau’s used fuel rods is a key component of the design for one of two experimental nuclear reactors for New Brunswick. In the design, the extracted plutonium would be transformed into fuel for the new reactor. New Brunswick’s plutonium plan is a marked departure from current practice in Canada.

Countries that extract or separate plutonium from used nuclear reactor fuel – either for military or commercial use – require special oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Only a handful of countries do it commercially: the UK, France, India, Japan and Russia. China is expected to commercialize the process by 2025. Adding Canada to this list would be a milestone in international relations. And yet New Brunswick is planning to do it, without any Parliamentary debate.

The link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is strong but rarely acknowledged. The first nuclear reactors were built not to produce electricity but rather to produce plutonium for bombs. From 1945 to 1965, Canada made plutonium at Chalk River and sold it to the U.S. military for use in bombs.

In 1974, India exploded its first atomic bomb using plutonium created in a Canadian nuclear reactor, a gift from Canada. Several years later, extracting plutonium from used nuclear fuel was banned by the Carter administration in the U.S. and the first Trudeau administration in Canada. South Korea and Taiwan were likewise forbidden (with pressure from the U.S.) to do it.

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