Top secret cargo. Plutonium from Canada?
Covert mission: Plutonium source might be Canada Questions being asked about mystery cargo BY IAN MACLEOD, OTTAWA CITIZEN MARCH 30, 2014 The nuclear fuel carrier Pacific Egret slipped into the harbour at Charleston, South Carolina, on March 19 and unloaded a top-secret cargo at the port’s Naval Weapons Station.
Fitted with naval guns, cannons and extensive hidden means of repelling a terrorist assault, the three-year-old British vessel was purpose-built to transport plutonium, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel on the high seas.
Its previous publicly reported position had been exiting the Mediterranean at the Strait of Gibraltar almost two weeks earlier on March 7, carrying a delicate nuclear cargo loaded at the La Spezia naval base in northern Italy.
As the vessel entered the North Atlantic that day, its tracking image vanished from an online marine traffic monitoring system. The ship the size of a football field became all but invisible to unauthorized eyes.
Questions are now being raised about whether the sensitive cargo included recycled plutonium that originated here in Canada.
The clandestine business of transporting shiploads of fissile nuclear materials between nations rarely comes into public view. An eight-kilogram piece of plutonium-239 the size of a grapefruit could obliterate much of Ottawa in seconds — as it did to Nagasaki in August 1945. It’s aptly named after the ancient Greek god of the underworld………
It’s believed that separated plutonium and HEU have been totally removed from 12 countries since U.S. President Barack Obama initiated the summits in 2010. In all, almost 3,000 kilograms of weapons-grade fissile materials have been removed or disposed of from 27 countries.
Yet there remains an estimated 490 tonnes of plutonium around the world for military and civilian use, plus approximately 1,250 tonnes of HEU, enough for more than 55,000 basic atomic bombs.
As a non-weapons state, Canada does not manufacturer HEU or reprocess spent reactor fuel to extract and recycle plutonium — a byproduct of nuclear fission. (In a conventional nuclear reactor, one kilogram of recycled plutonium-239 can produce sufficient heat to generate nearly 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. The downside is the risk of theft and nuclear proliferation.)
Instead, Canada imports small amounts of HEU from the U.S. as fuel for some research reactors — CANDU power reactors run on natural uranium — and for medical isotope production……….
What’s more, the Canadian commission “has been made aware that a quantity of” plutonium extracted from Canadian-origin spent fuel and recycled into fresh MOX fuel “is being transferred from Italy to (the Savannah River Site) for disposal. Prior to it being rendered no longer usable for nuclear purposes, it will remain subject to the provisions of the Canada-U.S. (nuclear co-operation agreement).”
The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration later added that, “final determination of where the material will be processed is yet to be decided.” As civilian material, it does not qualify for the Savannah River Site disposal program. That program, involving mostly U.S. and Russian military plutonium and HEU from dismantled nuclear weapons, in fact appears doomed under 2015 federal budget cuts.
The suggestion that the MOX fuel made from Canadian spent fuel will be stored at the Savannah River Site, rather than disposed of, angers nuclear activists and South Carolina residents.
The sprawling nuclear reserve is already home to countless leftover nuclear materials from the U.S. nuclear weapons program, including an estimated 13 tonnes of plutonium. Under a bilateral agreement between Canada and the U.S., it’s also to receive intensely radioactive liquid HEU from Chalk River next year as well as decades-old spent HEU fuel from Chalk River’s NRU research reactor and the former NRX research reactor.
Tom Clements, a nuclear materials expert and adviser to the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club, says without a firm “disposition pathway” for the civilian MOX and separated plutonium arriving from foreign nations, local residents fear the Savannah River Site will be left “holding the plutonium bag.”……….http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Covert+mission+Plutonium+source+might+Canada/9675369/story.html
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