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Canadian reactors that “recycle” plutonium would create more problems than they solve

Bulletin, By Jungmin KangM.V. Ramana | May 25, 2023

In 2021, nine US nonproliferation experts sent an open letter to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In their letter, the experts expressed their concern that the Canadian government was actually increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation by funding reactors that are fueled with plutonium. Earlier that year, the Federal Government had provided 50.5 million Canadian dollars to Moltex Energy, a company exploring a nuclear reactor design fueled with plutonium. The linkage to nuclear weapons proliferation has also led several civil society groups to urge the Canadian government to ban plutonium reprocessing.

Much of the concern so far has been on Canada setting a poor example by sending a “dangerous signal to other countries that it is OK to for them to extract plutonium for commercial use.” But Moltex plans to export its reactors to other countries raise a different concern. Even if a country importing such a reactor does not start a commercial program to extract plutonium, it would still have a relatively easy access to plutonium in the fuel that the reactor relies on to operate. Below we provide a rough estimate of the quantities of plutonium involved—and their potential impact on nuclear weapons proliferation—to help explain the magnitude of the problem. But there is more. By separating multiple radionuclides from the solid spent fuel and channeling it into waste streams, Moltex reactors will only make the nuclear waste problem worse.

Moltex’s technological claims. Moltex established its Canadian headquarters in the province of New Brunswick after it received an infusion of 5 million Canadian dollars from the provincial government. The company offers two products: a molten salt reactor and a proprietary chemical process that Moltex terms “waste to stable salts” technology. Moltex claims that, by using its chemical process, it can “convert” spent fuel from Canada’s deuterium uranium nuclear reactors (CANDUs) into new fuel that can be used in its reactor design. Moltex essentially claims it can “reduce waste.” In light of the problematic history associated with molten salt reactors, Moltex’s proposed reactors, and especially the chemical process needed to produce fuel, deserve more scrutiny. These will have serious implications for nuclear policy.

In its response to the open letter from the US nonproliferation experts, Moltex dismissed the ability of outsiders to comment, arguing that experts “are not aware of [its proprietary] process as only high-level details are made public.” Moltex has been indeed sparse in what it shared publicly about its technologies. Still, there is much one can surmise from earlier experiences with the processing of spent fuel and from basic science. With some simple calculations based on these high-level details provided by Moltex so far—and taking those at face value, i.e., without evaluating the feasibility of the design or their plans—we show that there is reason to be concerned about the amounts of plutonium that will be used in the reactor.

[Technical explanation here about chemical processes]…………………………………………………………………………….

Moltex’s proposed technology has not yet been evaluated by the International Atomic Energy Agency for how well it can be safeguarded; nor is it possible to evaluate how well the technology can be safeguarded in advance of a final design. But there is good reason to think that a determined country—one that might not play by the rules set by the IAEA—might find a way to divert some plutonium from Moltex’s chemical process to use it in nuclear weapons.

Diversion has been a long-standing concern with pyroprocessing, which is closely related to what Moltex is proposing. …………………………………………………………more


May 27, 2023 - Posted by | - plutonium, Canada, technology

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