Canada walks the international nuclear tightrope to Toyako

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?

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12 years ago

I think Canada had the right idea when we first got into the nuclear power business – we developed our own technology that did not need enriched fuel. We should continue using that approach. There are really interesting options involving thorium and liquid fuels that we could explore. We could also advance processes like DUPIC that can make a real difference in the nuclear power business. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be dragged into murky world of proliferation politics, a game that we just dont have the resources for.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago

That’s just it Randal, to advance DUPIC we have to engage in non-proliferation politics. DUPIC is more proliferation resistant than the reprocessing approaches being proposed under GNEP. The first question is where will it go into action, the U.S. or Canada? And the second, how will we pay for it?

12 years ago

We can start by building twenty new reactors in Ontario, the number we need to convert our transportation system to electric power. All this practice will teach us how to build these things really efficiently. Then we build them for free in places like India, China, USA, and Germany, the countries that are polluting the air presently. Call this foreign aid if you want to, and we can get our level up to the 0.7 % that it should be. The condition is that Canada operates these new plants, giving us operational experience. We operate these plants by taking used fuel from the USA and burning it in our reactors. The USA should pay us to take that stuff off their hands. We bring the used fuel from our reactors back to Canada for long term storage and future use in our fast reactors, giving us free fuel. No proliferation, lots of work for Canadians, and clean power that will make the world richer and better able to deal with climate change. Everyone wins.

[…] has been negotiating with the U.S. over permission to develop a domestic enrichment industry (see article). Doesn’t this prove we are a team player on nuclear issues? The global anti-proliferation regime […]

[…] on the success of Canada’s diplomacy in getting us into the enriched fuel business as well (see article). So slim pickings in that […]

eve seguin
9 years ago

I don’t understand why scrapping the MAPLE (which was to use HEU) makes Canada’s determination to develop its own uranium enrichment industry more acceptable to the US?

Besides, the MAPLE would have stimulated that industry since it would presumably have used Canadian-produced HEU targets.

So could you please clarify your line of reasoning?

Steve Aplin
9 years ago
Reply to  eve seguin

Eve, you are right — originally the MAPLEs would have used HEU targets. But I thought Canada had decided to convert them to use LEU targets. See http://www.rertr.anl.gov/Web2000/PDF/Malko00.pdf

In any case, my argument is that by scrapping the MAPLEs we ended whatever long term use we would have had for HEU, thereby falling in line with international anti-proliferation policy. The NRU, which uses HEU for isotopes, will only run until around 2020.

And if Canada were to get international (i.e., U.S.) agreement to own and operate an enrichment facility on Canadian soil, that facility would not enrich to beyond 19.75 percent.

All of which is sort of moot, given that a determined country will acquire whatever nuclear explosive it needs to build a weapon, and will do so regardless of whether medical isotope production reactors in Canada or wherever else do or do not use HEU.

eve seguin
9 years ago

steve, indeed there were plans for a HEU to LEU conversion of the MAPLE targets (see also http://www.rertr.anl.gov/Web2002/2003Web/Malkoske.html).
so I’m sorry but I still don’t get your point. please explain how scrapping two reactors that might have ended up using LEU targets -thereby conforming to the very US non proliferation policy- would help Canada get US approval for developping a domestic enrichment industry (or anything else for that matter). that sounds paradoxical to say the least…

Steve Aplin
9 years ago
Reply to  eve seguin

Eve, by scrapping the MAPLEs Canada definitively signaled it was getting out of the game of using HEU (regardless of whether or not the conversion to LEU would have been successful). Canada can say to the community that it is a team player, and a good international citizen, by committing to eventually refrain from using HEU. Meanwhile, by seeking international support for owning enrichment facilities it has distinguished itself from other countries that only pursued enrichment without bothering to also seek approval. i.e., unlike certain others, we go through the proper channels.

eve seguin
9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

steve,
what is the point of getting a national enrichment industry if you no longer use HEU?
why would the US expect Canada to stop using HEU while allowing it to develop an enrichment industry?
clearly, there is something I don’t grasp…

Steve Aplin
9 years ago
Reply to  eve seguin

Eve, there is a big worldwide market for LEU. This would give a company, presumably Cameco, the opportunity to provide a value added product it could then sell to, e.g., the utilities that operate the U.S.’s 104 civilian nuclear reactors. The level of enrichment for BWR/PWR fuel is around 3 to 5 percent. Right now, Cameco can only offer processed natural uranium. Somebody else—Areva, USEC, Tenex—does the enriching and gets all the revenue from that.