The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission added momentum to the new push to go further into outer space than humans have ever gone before.
Ontario’s nuclear industry could receive both a reflected glow from the extraterrestrial travel hype and a new revenue stream. It could also potentially increase international nuclear-weapons proliferation.
Unbeknownst to most Canadians, the Darlington nuclear power plant 70 kilometres east of Toronto has already been playing a not-so-small role in the space race.
The plant has been producing radioactive plutonium-238 as fuel for spacecraft in NASA’s mushrooming space pipeline since 2017.
That’s when Ontario Power Generation (OPG) announced excitedly that it would start making plutonium-238 for space exploration. The plant produces about 10 kilograms of plutonium-238 a year.
“We are proud to have Ontario play a part, however small, in this most noble of human endeavours,” OPG’s then-president and CEO Jeff Lyash said in a news release.
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which runs the Chalk River facility near Ottawa, another participant in the initiative, posted a “Success Stories” article on its website seven days later. It cautioned that “this opportunity is still subject to regulatory and licensing processes.” But it quotes a CNL official as saying “staff should take a lot of pride in the fact that we are key partners.”
CNL has continued communicating with other project stakeholders. But when NOW contacted CNL for a comment it responded on September 5 that it is no longer involved in the project. OPG has removed the news release from its website and did not respond to NOW’s request for information. Turns out a company called Technical Solutions Management (TSM) is steering the initiative now.
TSM is owned by former nuclear-industry executives Billy Shipp, Pierre Tremblay and Paul Spekkens. CEO Shipp told NOW in an August 29 phone interview that NASA has yet to give its formal thumbs-up.
“For us to get out ahead of our client [NASA], in terms of anticipated need [for plutonium-238], or making statements of their need, is not that professional on our part. So we really have been very low-key on this,” Shipp says when reached for an interview aboard a boat off Vancouver Island.
But he noted that U.S. President Donald Trump’s establishment of a Space Command makes the project more likely to proceed.
Plutonium-238 has long been used to fuel flight, via conversion into electricity of the intense heat the atom pumps out. The U.S. powered military satellites with it in the 1960s. NASA also harnessed it most recently to propel Curiosity Rover to Mars in 2011.
The steps involved for the manufacture of made-in-Canada plutonium-238 to supplement the U.S.’s production involves first synthesizing neptunium-237, plutonium-238’s precursor at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.
From there, the material is transported to Chalk River where it is put into bundles before it’s sent to Darlington and inserted into CANDU reactors. There, the neptunium-237 catches stray neutrons, transforming it into plutonium-238. The bundles are shipped back to Chalk River where the plutonium-238 is separated from byproducts and packaged into pellets. The pellets are transported to Idaho National Lab where they are readied as ‘nuclear batteries’ for spacecraft engines. The current price of plutonium-238 isn’t public, but back in 2003 one kilogram was worth about $8 million U.S.
Gordon Edwards, co-founder and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, says the form of radioactivity emitted by plutonium (namely, alpha particles) is highly toxic when inhaled but often isn’t picked up radiation detectors.
For example, in November 2009, hundreds of workers at OPG’s Bruce nuclear plant breathed in plutonium dust (a byproduct of nuclear-energy production) but the plutonium remained undetected for weeks. Many of the workers had not been given respirators. It was the largest preventable exposure of workers to internal radioactive contamination in the history of the civilian nuclear industry.
Even worse, says Edwards, is the fact the process used to create plutonium-238 can also be used to transform depleted uranium into plutonium-239, the key explosive in nuclear bombs.
“I grant that TSM’s plutonium-238 program does not fundamentally enhance this danger, but it does provide an opportunity to tell the public and politicians that if you can produce one kind of plutonium for the space program you can just as easily produce another kind of plutonium for a nuclear-weapons program, using essentially the same CANDU technology,” Edwards tells NOW.
However, no one inside the space or nuclear industries appears be seriously addressing these well-known problems. And there is plenty of money potentially available for a new plutonium-238 venture. NASA projects its research and development budget – including developing power and propulsion systems – will be $1.5 billion next year, rising to $3.4 billion by 2024.
TSM’s other co-owners, Tremblay and Spekkens, are well-placed to move such a project forward.
Tremblay was OPG’s chief nuclear operating officer and president of OPG’s subsidiary Canadian Nuclear Partners. He became AECOM Canada Nuclear Operations’ president and CEO in August 2018. The American multinational is playing key roles in the multi-billion-dollar Darlington refurbishment. Tremblay started consulting for AECOM in June 2016; an industry article about this said the firm “has recruited key expertise that will undoubtedly position the company to play a key part in the massive nuclear power projects anticipated for Ontario over the next decade.”
Spekkens retired in 2016 as OPG’s vice president of science and technology and as chair of the CANDU Owners Group, a Toronto-based private organization that promotes CANDU use around the world. He then became a consultant and director of nuclear technology at Kinectrics.
He opined on the nuclear industry’s future at a June 2017 conference. In the abstract of his lecture, Spekkens says “this future will, of course, depend heavily on technology. But also (and perhaps equally) important will be non-technical considerations such as public acceptance, a pipeline full of qualified future employees, public policy in several levels of government, and of course, finances.”