Flying the Friendly Skies

Canada Ponders the Japanese-U.S. Agreement on Plutonium Transport

 Rebecca Aird


A recently signed agreement between Japan and the United States raises the spectre of the use of Canadian airspace to transport an extremely toxic and long-lived radioactive material-plutonium. How did the agreement come about, what are its implications, and what are Canada's options?

 Because of an historic monopoly on nuclear fuel, the United States was able to negotiate extensive control over reprocessing and shipment in the 1950s and 1960s. With increased civilian demand for plutonium, however, the Reagan administration finds itself under pressure to relax its virtual case-by-case control; hence the renegotiated nuclear co-operation agreement between Japan and the United States.

 Japan, which receives uranium for its nuclear reactors from the United States (thus, indirectly, from Canadian mines) wants to use French reprocessing facilities to recover plutonium from its spent fuels. (Uranium-fuelled reactors create plutonium as a by-product.) Its new agreement with the United States provides for 30-year advance consent for the transfer, between France and Japan, of recovered Japanese plutonium. Much of this plutonium will be converted into plutonium oxide and blended with uranium oxide for use in light-water reactors. Some will be fabricated into fuel elements for a prototype breeder reactor.


Polar Route

 The agreement contains no substantive information on route, safety standards, or the frequency and size of shipments. The transportation annex specifies air shipment of the plutonium via a "polar route or another route selected to avoid areas of natural disaster or civil disorder". Preparation of a transportation plan prior to each shipment is to involve the "co-operation and assistance of...the countries en route...."

 The Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based organization dedicated to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, has suggested a likely transport scenario. Given the quantities of nuclear waste to be reprocessed, the probable container design, and weight constraints on air transport, the agreement could translate into shipment across northern Canadian airspace of up to 226 kg of weapons-grade plutonium every two weeks for the next 30 years. If approved, the transport plan would commence within the next few years.

 Neither the agreement nor the transportation annex set out strength standards for the containment casks. No plutonium cask large enough for bulk shipment has passed the relatively stringent crash test requirements set out by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). To date, the NRC has certified a cask capable of carrying about 2 kg of plutonium, to be used only in single-cask flights. The cask currently being developed for commercial transport of plutonium weighs more than 2200 kg and holds 6 to 7 kg of plutonium. The likelihood of such a cask being sufficiently strong to meet NRC standards, much less withstand mid-flight crash impact, is, according to some experts, poor.

In fact, Canada appears to have little grounds for insisting on NRC standards, since Canadian regulations governing the transport packaging of radioactive materials (under the Atomic Energy Control Act) adopt the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which are considerably more lenient than those of the NRC. Interestingly, though, section 5062 under the "miscellaneous" heading of the 1987 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, signed 22 December 1987, requires NRC certification to Congress of the safety of the container before any form of plutonium is transported through U.S. airspace from one foreign nation to another. This certification requires a drop test from maximum cruising altitude.


Increasing Risk

The implications of a crash are rendered particularly frightening if, as appears likely, the plutonium is shipped as a fine powder. Released into the atmosphere, it could remain airborne for days and spread over hundreds or thousands of miles. Inhaled in even minute quantities it is extremely carcinogenic. Moreover, the radioactivity would actually increase for several decades, as a portion would decay into a more dangerous isotope. The half-life, depending on the isotope, is thousands of years.

 Added to these concerns is the potential for international terrorism. Reactor-grade plutonium can be used directly in nuclear explosives. In avoiding a strong pro-active stance against the shipment of plutonium across its airspace, Canada is in tacit compliance with the creation of a plutonium economy that-notwithstanding the agreement's non-proliferation conditions- renders increasingly difficult the control of nuclear weapons proliferation. The risks seem particularly unacceptable in light of the dubious economic advantage of extracting plutonium for nuclear fuel; both the United States and Canada have given up plans for reprocessing plutonium, since the breeder reactor seems less and less commercially viable, and uranium prices have fallen.

 Alaska Governor Steve Cowper has expressed strong reservations about the Japan-United States agreement, as the transportation arrangements will likely necessitate a refuelling stop-over in Alaska. In an April letter to Secretary of State George Schultz, Cowper had requested preparation of an environmental impact statement prior to submission of the agreement to Congress, pointing out that it provides no information on such key factors as emergency response capability or demography along the route. None the less, President Reagan approved and forwarded the agreement to the U.S. Congress for ratification on 9 November. In December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded, in a 14-3 vote, that the agreement is unacceptable in its present form. The committee's concerns related to such issues as the creation of a plutonium economy; the negative implications for non-proliferation; the lack of proven safeguards; and the environmental threat.

Despite these developments, there is no indication that the administration is considering a renegotiation of the agreement. To turn this agreement around requires that, within 90 sitting days of 9 November, a vote against it take place in both houses. Despite its lobbying efforts, Alaska may be unable to rally sufficient support among the other states to even bring the issue to a vote. To date, no vote has been scheduled. (Interestingly, the Defense Department may be a "wild card" opponent, due to fears of the implications of greater freedom of movement for weapons-grade plutonium. Most of President Reagan's letter of transmittal to the U.S. Congress focuses on assurances regarding non-proliferation.)

Canada was not consulted during the bilateral negotiation of the agreement. Transport Minister John Crosbie insists that "strong representations" have been made to the United States and Japan, but Canada will apparently take no decisive action on the issue until a specific transport proposal is made. Crosbie asserts that Canada will receive pre-notification of overflights and will not authorize the flights unless satisfied of their safety. However, questions raised in the House of Commons by Liberal environment critic Charles Caccia have elicited only evasive responses on how Canada will gauge the security and safety issues.

 Canada could block the transport of such a dangerous substance over its airspace via the Chicago Convention of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Under Annex 18 of the convention, Canada has already filed a state difference to require prior permission for the acceptance for carriage of fissile radioactive materials. A change has recently been made to clarify that this state difference applies to the transport of fissile nuclear material over Canadian airspace by a foreign carrier. (The change will be reflected in ICAO's 1989-90 technical instructions.) However, given its own adoption of IAEA standards, Canada will have little justification for refusing flights that meet these standards. Moreover, Canada's poor track record in controlling the use of its arctic airspace and contested arctic waters inspires little confidence in its ability to assert sovereign authority in the face of foreign transportation interests.

Opponents of plutonium air shipment had been encouraging Canada to declare its refusal to allow this use of its airspace before the agreement was sent to Congress for ratification. There is still time for Canada to act decisively before the agreement is ratified. Otherwise, the momentum behind the plutonium economy may become increasingly difficult to arrest.


Rebecca Aird is a researcher with the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.

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