A while ago the National Observer published “Bad guys and bombs: The nuclear risks of small modular reactors” (https://www.nationalobserver.com/2023/11/03/news/bad-guys-bombs-nuclear-risks-small-modular-reactors).
It follows an earlier article they produced in September about an open letter sent to the government (https://www.ccnr.org/Trudeau_letter_Sept_22_2023.pdf) that suggested that the proposed Moltex WAste To Stable Salts (WATSS) process, being considered in New Brunswick, is a proliferation risk. This letter was itself one of a series in which vague and changing accusations were followed by a series of changing requests that started with a demand that the project be stopped, moved to a request for a full review, and finished with a request for nothing more than a meeting.
It would appear that the government has not responded, likely because the letters are so vague that the government could not work out what they had to respond to. The request for a full review is particularly bizarre because the licensing process would require a full review, and the authors would have known that.
But the National Observer convened a kangaroo court of people who do not understand the issues and decided to find the entire SMR industry guilty, describing them all as bad guys, even though most are not involved in this issue at all. This sets out their stall for what becomes a ludicrously biased and inaccurate piece of anti-nuclear reporting.
One might forgive them for their gullibility if they had not had the opportunity to fully inform themselves. But they did have plenty of opportunity. Both the CNS and Moltex have corrected them in the past. CNS wrote to them and even offered to do an interview with them. They pretended to be interested and then didn’t respond to our attempts to set it up. They told us our letter to them had “some logical gaps” but failed to identify any, probably because they couldn’t. They did interview Rory O’Sullivan of Moltex but then used his quotes out of context to create a misleading narrative.
The most egregious corruption in the article is the frequent reference to plutonium being separated out or extracted, for example “Moltex plans to separate plutonium from uranium in CANDU waste and use the extracted plutonium to power new SMRs”. This is despite the fact that plutonium is not separated or extracted in the WATSS process. It is concentrated by the process, but it remains in the fuel with a lot of other things, so it cannot be used in a weapon without a lot of additional processing. All of the people involved in this article knew this.
And when one of the so-called experts says “that by separating and concentrating plutonium, Moltex is completing one of the most difficult steps on the path to making a bomb,” they seem to be forgetting that commercial nuclear fuel is inappropriately laden with plutonium isotopes that are unsuitable for making weapons because:
In other words, while you could use this material, to do so would require the use of technologies that are more sophisticated than any of the existing weapons states currently have. Yes, they would need to be technologically more advanced than the USA in weapons making technology, but at the same time not have the capability to adapt existing pyroprocessing technology in the way Moltex propose.
So basically, while someone might possibly consider making weapons out of used commercial reactor fuel, why would they actually do it? HEU (high enriched uranium) would be a better material, and it is relatively easy to make. If they really wanted decent plutonium, they would build a research reactor. This might be a rather technical point, but it is fundamental, and it’s worrying that the experts that wrote the letter neither mentioned it nor addressed it. It is a lie by omission.
But this is not the only omission. The article relies heavily on the authors being experts for its credibility, and the evidence they present to support this idea is that these experts routinely present to the American government. That does appear quite convincing, doesn’t it? But the more important fact is that the American government has ignored those presentations. Surely the reporter should have pointed this out. It’s very relevant. It means that not only does it appear that the Canadian government is not concerned about Moltex’s plans, but it appears that the American government is not concerned either. And the Americans take a very hard line on signs of proliferation.
The use of the phrase “bad guys” is very revealing because it comes from the very core of this rather vague conspiracy theory which envisages the Canadian government becoming a SPECTRE-like organization, or Rory O’Sullivan (CEO of Moltex Energy Canada) being a modern-day Blofeld building nuclear weapons in plain sight. Or possibly it could envision someone who has an island with extensive nuclear facilities but who needs to steal source material from Canada because, for some inexplicable reason, they chose not to make it themselves. Remember you can get uranium from the sea.
So, like any good Bond film, all we need to do to embrace this plot is to entirely suspend reality and ignore the almost impenetrable institutional, societal, and technological barriers that would need to be overcome.
While the National Observer article and the most recent letter appear to focus on these rather imaginative scenarios, the letter-writing “experts” were originally more concerned about technology leakage. This is at least a credible concern, but in fact, as the experts themselves confirm, “The technology proposed by Moltex appears to be based on the more complex pyroprocessing technology developed by the Idaho National Laboratory” and is, in other words, already fully understood and available to anyone that wants it.
Basically, to brew it all down, the only negative contribution Moltex could make to proliferation risk is to help develop a technology that already exists into a state that is licensable in Canada. But I somehow doubt that a “bad guy,” building secret reprocessing and bomb-making facilities, will be applying for a licence from the CNSC.
On the other hand, for anyone that is concerned civil nuclear fuel is a proliferation risk, it will lead to a reduction in available material as Moltex will consume the plutonium in their reactor.
I am not a soothsayer and so cannot say with complete certainty that there will be no proliferation of nuclear weapons from civil nuclear programs. I cannot say with certainty that all the Canadian political parties have not come together to create a weapons program that is so secret that no one, including the Americans, have noticed. I cannot say with certainty that Rory does not execute his poor-performing staff by pressing a button and having them ejected into a shark tank (though I am fairly sure he doesn’t).
But I did learn from Britannica that “More than 20 countries have developed nuclear power industries without building nuclear weapons. On the other hand, countries that have built and tested nuclear weapons have followed other paths than purchasing commercial nuclear reactors, reprocessing the spent fuel, and obtaining plutonium. Some have built facilities for the express purpose of enriching uranium; some have built plutonium production reactors; and some have surreptitiously diverted research reactors to the production of plutonium. All these pathways to nuclear proliferation have been more effective, less expensive, and easier to hide from prying eyes than the commercial nuclear power route”.
And I am fairly certain that if I proposed a plot for the next James Bond movie that involved the sort of conspiracy being proposed by the National Observer, they would suggest I go away and come up with something people could believe.
Let’s face it, anyone planning to build a secret nuclear weapons program is not going to want to engage Canada to help them because they will know at some point, we would see what was going on, tell the world and sanctions would be immediately imposed. Bud guys would go to other bad guys in existing rogue states as they would be more than happy to help them, because bad guys help bad guys and good guys don’t.