Uncle Sam plays atomic hardball over Canadian enrichment: should Canada import spent fuel?

Canada wants to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, but is on the record as saying it will not import other countries’ spent nuclear fuel. Canada will need permission to realize this arrangement, and that permission must come from the United States.

The U.S. doesn’t mind Canada enriching fuel as long as this doesn’t involve any technology transfer—i.e., as long as Canada does not own or have access to the actual technology that enriches uranium. This could mean giving the International Atomic Energy Agency site rights to an enrichment facility on Canadian soil. Such a facility would be run by an international consortium.

Canada, on the other hand, wants to own and have full access to enrichment technology. So there is a bit of a gap between the Canadian and American positions.

How will the gap be closed? Somebody’s position will have to change. An objective observer could be forgiven for wondering if Canada wants all the benefits of being a full fuel-cycle state as envisioned under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), without having to shoulder any of the bothersome responsibilities, like having to repatriate spent fuel. Repatriating spent fuel closes the nuclear fuel cycle, a critical aim of GNEP.

The observer might point out that if Canada gets its way—if it is allowed to enrich and reprocess fuel without being required to repatriate spent fuel—then this would require the U.S. to explain to other countries why it agreed to create a special GNEP category for Canada. International nuclear rules are supposed to be non-discriminatory and devoid of favoritism.

I know I led off this post with a baseball metaphor. But I’m a Canadian boy. And like any hockey fan, I admire our government’s boldness in pressing our enrichment/reprocessing case with the Americans, who, when it comes to bargaining on nuclear issues, are like the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers.

It would take similar boldness, and vision, to change Canada’s policy on spent fuel. This would be a good move. The most likely technology for Canadian reprocessing is DUPIC, which is based on dry mechanical methods that entail no separation of fissile material from fission products. This makes it more proliferation-resistant, and less costly, than the reprocessing methods proposed under GNEP (see article). When you consider the sheer amount of LWR spent fuel in the U.S., the commercial potential is staggering. Best of all, Canada would lead the way in strengthening global anti-proliferation efforts.

Going up to The Show means playing by Show rules. Canada’s problem with spent fuel repatriation may of course have more to do with current domestic politics than negotiating with the U.S. When we joined GNEP, we said we won’t do it. It’s easy to see how a reversal on spent fuel would play, especially today. The Harper government is currently getting its first real taste of media and public disrespect. Maybe now is not the best time.

But this could be precisely what it will take to reach an agreement with the Americans. Which presents a fascinating question for those who specialize in political calculus. What’s worse: giving up Canada’s sovereignty, which is how critics will spin the enrichment consortium option; or becoming the U.S.’s nuclear waste dump, which is how they will spin a reversal on spent fuel?

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