Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Korea, Canada and CANDU

Like most baby boomers, I have vivid memories of what it was like to live with the constant threat of nuclear war. Growing up in Edmonton, I suspect that my experience was a little more immediate that most Canadians. Edmonton was the gateway to the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line, a series of northern tracking posts designed to alert us in the event that the Soviet Union decided to lob a few nuclear bombs over the North Pole. We routinely had air raid drills at my elementary school and watched films on what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Thankfully, my own children didn't share the experience. The fall of the Soviet Union, coupled with some political common sense had put the threat of a nuclear war on the back burner until North Korea conducted its first nuclear test on October 9th.

All of a sudden, it's 1962 again. The United Nations is debating furiously over exactly what to do to stop North Korea. With an estimated two to three million North Koreans living at starvation levels, there has been concern that trade sanctions against North Korea would only hurt the country's most vulnerable citizens and likely further enrage its leader. As a result, on October 14th, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions that would prevent luxury items such as French wines and jet skis from reaching North Korea's elite.

Canada's leaders have been appropriately and righteously indignant about North Korea's action. Prime Minister Harper publicly condemned the test, calling it "an irresponsible and dangerous act."

So far, so good. Unfortunately, what most Canadians don't realize is that there is a direct connection between Canada's CANDU nuclear reactors and Korea's nuclear weapons test. Simply put, you can't build a nuclear bomb without nuclear fuel, i.e. plutonium. In North Korea's case, the plutonium (and the nuclear technology needed to build the bomb) came from Pakistan. Pakistan in turn got its plutonium and nuclear know-how from Canada.

It is our national shame. It was bad enough that we gave Pakistan, India and other developing nations the technology they needed to build atomic bombs decades ago. After India conducted its initial nuclear test in 1974 (with plutonium manufactured in a reactor supplied by Canada), we had an opportunity to stop nuclear proliferation, but we didn't.

Canada did suspend nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in 1975 when that country's leaders refused to promise not to use plutonium from a Canadian-built reactor to develop weapons. However, we continued to provide nuclear know-how through the CANDU Owner's Group (COG). So while Canada stopped providing Pakistan with nuclear hardware, it continued to provide information on how to build a better civilian reactor. The result was that Pakistan detonated its first nuclear warhead in 1998.

Which brings us to the current crisis. Canada continues to promote CANDU reactors on the global stage as a safe alternative to major greenhouse gas producers such as coal and oil fired generation. However, as a nation we have consistently refused to acknowledge the link between nuclear power and nuclear bombs. This is critical because there is little distinction made between civilian and military nuclear programs in most developing countries, many of which now possess Canadian nuclear technology. The result is that our self-centered promotion of nuclear technology has consistently fueled the nuclear arms race.

As bizarre as it sounds, this is at the core of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It promises to provide civilian nuclear power plants to countries that agree not to build nuclear bombs. In other words, if you promise not to build bombs we'll give you the tools to build one. We've seen how much these promises mean. They mean nothing.

It was George Santayana, the great philosopher, who said, "Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it." In Canada's case, I think the problem runs even deeper. As a nation we have flatly refused to acknowledge that we've even played a role in the nuclear arms race, let alone learned from that experience.


The International Institute of Concern for Public Health is a Canadian-based nonprofit organization dedicated to informing the public of the health hazards of nuclear, chemical and other commercial, military, and industrial products.


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