Earlier this month, the Department of Energy announced that
spent nuclear fuel from American research reactors will be melted down
and stored, rather than reprocessed and reused. The announcement comes
at the same time that Canadian researchers are planning to recycle
waste into reactor fuel. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator
Suzanne Elston says that this is one time when recycling shouldn’t be an
Activists in Canada and the U-S are trying to stop plutonium from
dismantled warheads from being shipped to Canadian nuclear power
plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… the
first shipment was recently slipped into Canada and another is coming
Activists in Canada and the U.S. are trying to stop plutonium from dismantled warheads
from being shipped to Canadian nuclear power plants. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports the first shipment was recently slipped into Canada
and another is coming this spring:
The Canadian government plans to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled
nuclear warheads from Russia. Canada suggested it could mix the weapons-grade
plutonium with uranium and use it for fuel in its nuclear power plants.
Protestors in the U.S. and Canada vowed they’d stop the shipments. During public
hearings in Michigan, some environmentalists and politicians said they’d lie down in
the road to stop trucks. So, when the U.S. Department of Energy planned a shipment of
sample material, the DOE made the shipment classified. Nobody was told when or where
the plutonium would be shipped. This month, the secret shipment left Los Alamos and
entered Canada at Sault Sainte Marie.
Verna Lawrence is the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She’s outraged her town was
not notified the shipment was coming.
“We’d have barricaded I-75. I had people that would go with me. How dare they do that
to us in our area with the Great Lakes Basin. It’s crazy!”
Mayor Lawrence says the federal government is shipping the plutonium against the
wishes of the people.
“See, the Canadian government and the United States government are in cahoots. They
don’t give a damn about anybody else. And let me tell you another thing: the governors
are not protecting their citizens. If I was the governor and I had the National Guard
and the State Police, they would not set foot on the state of Michigan.”
Just on the other side of the border, the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario also was
Once in Canada, the shipment was put on a helicopter and flown to the Chalk River
Nuclear Power Plant where the fuel is being tested. Protestors say it was flown to
avoid blockades by activists and native people. The only road from Sault Ste. Marie to
the Chalk River Nuclear Plant runs through the Garden River Reservation. Cathy
Brosemer is with a coalition of environmental groups in Ontario called “Northwatch.”
She says the shipment was kept secret and the helicopter was used to avoid angry
peopole along the route.
“What we’ve been dealing with right now is the utter contempt the government holds its
citizens in. The government decided to ignore the public’s views on this issue and
literally fly over our heads.”
Canada’s nuclear industry says that’s not the case. Larry Shewchuck is a spokesperson
for Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited (AECL). AECL operates Canada’s nuclear power
plants. He says avoiding protestors was not the reason AECL used the helicopter.
“Quite frankly, AECL was just as happy to leave the shipment on the road. It was the
government of Canada that asked us to put it in the air because that’s what Canadians
were asking for. So, in the end, we did what the politicians wanted.”
Shewchuck says at public information stops this past fall, many people suggested if
the shipments were as safe as AECL and the Canadian government said they were, they
ought to fly them to the nuclear plant.
Protestors question whether a last minute switch from ground transportation to air was
a regulatory shell game to trick opponents of the plutonium shipments. Shewchuck says
the change was proper and followed the rules.
“The regulations in Canada did not have to be changed to accommodate air transport.
Air transport was made under existing Canadian regulations. Everything was done by the
book and nothing had to be changed.”
Environmental activists in the area don’t believe it. Cathy Brosemer says that flight
might have violated regulations and might be key in an effort to get an injunction.
“We believe that there have been some breaches in the way that this was handled and we
are going to try to get something to stop the test of the substance at the CANDU
reactors in Canton/Chalk River.”
The AECL plans to go ahead with tests of the plutonium mix fuel. Brosemer says the
environmentalists will also seek an injunction to stop future shipments. This spring,
Russian plutonium is scheduled to be shipped through the St. Lawrence Seaway, on
through the Great Lakes and finally to the Chalk River plant in Ontario.
The U.S. Department of Energy says there won’t be any more shipments from the States.
And official with the DOE spoke on the condition his name not be used. He says while
the United States is helping to pay for the disposal of plutonium from dismantled
Russian nuclear warheads, the U.S. has decided to use its plutonium in American
nuclear power plants.
The mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Verna Lawrence, doesn’t believe the Energy
Department. She says she and other people opposing the shipments have to be more
“We got to get somebody on the inside, I think. You know, that’s the only way we’re
going to – If you can’t lick ’em, trick ’em, you know. But we’ll figure out a way
because that’s just the first shipment. There’ll be many, many, many more.”
Officials in Canada and the U.S. say it’s ironic that the shipments are causing so
much controversy among some of the same people who opposed the nuclear arms race.
Canadian officials say the nuclear material as fuel is a safe and efficient way to
dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. If the mixed fuel works well in Canada’s nuclear
plants, regular shipments of plutonium from Russia’s dismantled warheads will travel
through the Great Lakes region for at least the next ten years.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
Earlier this month, the U-S completed a controversial shipment of
weapons grade plutonium to Canada. Despite considerable protest
before the event, the material was shipped without any public
As Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston points
out, this sets a dangerous precedent:
Earlier this month, the U.S. completed a controversial shipment of weapons-grade
plutonium to Canada. Despite considerable protest before the event, the material was
shipped without public knowledge. This sets a dangerous precedent, as Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s commentator Suzanne Elston points out:
Proponents of the plan think it’s a good idea. Take plutonium from dismantled nuclear
weapons, mix it with uranium and use it for fuel in nuclear reactors. The process
doesn’t destroy the plutonium, but what it does do is make it very difficult to use.
Supporters hope that this will prevent the plutonium from falling into the wrong
The plan had been in the works for several years. The problem was getting the stuff
from Los Alamos, New Mexico to an experimental nuclear facility in Chalk River,
Ontario. As soon as the public got wind of the trucking routes there were howls of
protest, particularly from a group of activists in Michigan. They were concerned about
the risks of an accident when the plutonium was shipped through their community. They
were desperately trying to get a court injunction to stop the plutonium from being
shipped when it was discovered that the stuff had already been sent.
There was no public input, no warning – nothing. Even the mayors of Sault Ste. Marie,
the towns where the plutonium crossed the border into Canada weren’t notified until
after the event. And because the whole thing went off without any problems, officials
were rather pleased with themselves. They duped the public, nobody got hurt – mission
I find this really scary. Whether the shipment was safe or not isn’t the issue here.
Not only does the public have a right to know what was going on, they also have the
right to stop it, if that’s the will of the people. But that right was taken away by
the boys at the Department of Energy and Atomic Energy Canada who seemed to think they
know better somehow.
Well guess what? That’s not what the democratic process is all about. Public input –
regardless of how inconvenient – has got to be considered. Just because a plan is
proposed, doesn’t mean that it should go ahead. Debate is the cornerstone of
democratic process. One of the possible outcomes of that debate is that the public
will exercise its right to say no.
But that wasn’t allowed to happen here. We the people are supposed to decide. That’s
Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living in Courtice, Ontario. She comes to us