A dozen nuclear energy experts are calling for a formal risk assessment of emerging nuclear technologies and warning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if a company in New Brunswick were to be successful, its product could be used by other countries to make nuclear bombs.
The open letter sent to the Prime Minister’s Office is dated Sept. 22, and spells out concerns that Saint John-based nuclear startup Moltex is embarking on a risky path. The proposed Moltex reactor is planned to be built at the site of the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station in Saint John, where it would essentially recycle spent nuclear waste sourced from CANDU reactors to produce more energy. The letter, signed by experts like former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory commissioner Peter Bradford, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists Edwin Lyman, George Washington University research professor and former State Department official Sharon Squassoni, says the risk is the plutonium in the used nuclear fuel could be separated and used to make weapons.
Despite Moltex claiming its technology is “proliferation-resistant,” the expert letter says there is “every reason to be skeptical of Moltex’s reactor technology.” The letter points to failed attempts in the United States and the United Kingdom to reprocess nuclear waste as a fuel, resulting in hundreds of billions worth of cleanup costs. To date, Moltex has received at least $50.5 million worth of federal government subsidies, $10 million from New Brunswick, and $1 million from Ontario Power Generation –– and is eyeing roughly $200 million more.
In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Moltex CEO Rory O’Sullivan defended his company, calling the letter “biased” and misleading.
O’Sullivan says Moltex’s goal is to “destroy the hazardous weapons-grade material” that already exists in nuclear waste around the world. According to him, the technology takes spent fuel, puts it through a process called Waste to Stable Salt (or WATSS), and “the hazardous material [is put] into our reactor immediately, and then it’s destroyed.” What’s left is shorter-lasting, low-level radioactive materials, he said.
“I think that objective is ignored in this biased letter,” he said. Thousands of years into the future, nobody would be able to “use that material to make a bomb.”
For the experts who wrote the letter, inadvertently creating a product that could be used to make nuclear weapons is a very real concern, and one with precedent. As the letter to Trudeau details, Canada and the United States were both exporting nuclear reactor technology to India decades ago for power generation purposes and ended up increasing the risk of nuclear war.
“Some of the plutonium India produced and separated with that assistance was used in the plutonium-fuelled prototype bomb India tested in 1974, precipitating the South Asian nuclear arms race,” the letter reads.
Canada and its allies are concerned that as new nuclear technologies are developed, the technology could similarly lead to unexpected nuclear weapon development. In May at the annual G7 meeting, Canada committed “to prioritizing efforts to reduce the production and accumulation of weapons-usable nuclear material for civil purposes around the world.”
Energy experts are calling for a risk assessment of emerging nuclear technologies and warning PM Trudeau if a company in New Brunswick were to be successful, its product could be used by other countries to make bombs. The company's CEO disagrees.
The letter requests a nuclear weapons proliferation risk assessment of the technology.
Natural Resources Canada did not return requests for comment by deadline. However, it did tell the Globe and Mail: “We can confirm that NRCan is not undertaking efforts to establish a policy on used nuclear fuel reprocessing.”
As the energy transition unfolds, nuclear energy is increasingly seen as a contentious fuel. While it is non-emitting, making it a potentially valuable tool in the race to decarbonize, nuclear waste is a long-lasting environmental concern with unclear storage options given it can be hazardous for thousands of years. Moreover, preventing the worst impacts of climate change requires slashing fossil fuel use by about half globally by the end of the decade, meaning experimental technology not yet suitable for use does not have any meaningful role to play in near-term emissions reductions.
In fact, a report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded small modular reactor designs like Moltex’s would struggle to be deployed by 2050, and require tremendous large-scale investment to succeed.