There has been no resolution of the quiet dispute between Canada and the U.S. over whether Canada can import and possess equipment to enrich uranium. This has forced Canada onto the diplomatic high-wire, where it has less than three weeks to balance domestic commercial interests with international non-proliferation efforts. If the Americans don’t change their minds before the July 7 G8 summit in Japan, then according to Platts Canada may publicly withdraw from an important G8 consensus against enrichment technology exports.
After simmering for a couple of years, the Canada–U.S. dispute over enrichment imports came to a faster simmer in April, when the U.S. proposed terms under which countries currently without enrichment facilities might come to acquire them. The Americans like the “black box” approach, whereby any country that currently does not possess enrichment technology but in the future hosts an enrichment facility would not have access to the actual enrichment technology and could not acquire it.
Canada wants Canadian companies to be able to own and operate this equipment. Otherwise, we’re the nuclear equivalent of hewers of wood and drawers of water: we can mine and process uranium, but the more lucrative value-added activities like enrichment will stay out of our domain. This is no way to become an energy superpower.
The U.S. position is driven, of course, by concerns over proliferation. Restricting access to enrichment technology is a major part of the effort to close the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Countries that want to develop nuclear power but not nuclear weapons don’t need to build their own enrichment facilities. Or so say the U.S. and the other countries—Russia, Great Britain, France, China, and Japan—that currently enrich uranium and would offer it on the commercial market. One of these countries, or an international consortium working with them, would supply fresh fuel for the other countries.
Much of the U.S. position on enrichment technology exports is coloured by recent experience with Iran. The Islamic Republic has played a dangerous and irresponsible game with the international community. Though it covertly procured enrichment technology from the A.Q. Khan network, thereby putting itself squarely in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a signatory, Iran continues to assert its sovereign right, under the same treaty, to develop nuclear fuel.
Most responsible nations agree that Iran’s case is facile. However, Iran is still able to cynically play on anti-American sentiment by pointing to the inherent unfairness of the two-tier nuclear state system, of which America is the most prominent tier-one member. Hence the U.S. desire for across-the-board rules when it comes to enrichment technology exports.
Of course, the Americans are not worried that Canada will proliferate if it gains access to enrichment technology. Canada has had heavy water, and thereby the means to manufacture plutonium, since the dawn of the nuclear age. It is more the perception the Americans are worried about. Making exceptions to international nuclear rules risks exposing the rule-makers to charges of favoritism and hypocrisy. Such charges could hurt the American-led effort to present Iran with unified international opposition to Iran’s enrichment program.
Canada’s challenge is to persuade the Americans that making an exception to the rules won’t interfere with the diplomatic encirclement of Iran. We’re a team player when it comes to proliferation: didn’t we voluntarily forgo our primacy in medical isotope production when we scrapped the Maple reactor program last month? The Maples would have used high-enriched uranium, the manufacture of which all responsible nations have agreed to phase out. Haven’t we indicated we would support the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal? This would require dropping a decades-old Canadian position against nuclear trade with India. And most important, haven’t we committed Canadian blood and treasure to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan, Iran’s biggest eastern neighbor and the main battleground in the effort to stabilize central Asia?
Canada, specifically its Conservative government, may face another communication challenge related to uranium enrichment—this one domestic. If Canada cannot win the U.S. to our point of view prior to the G8 summit in Toyako, Japan, Canada will likely withdraw from the G8 consensus against enrichment technology exports. How will the Conservatives explain this to the country?