Brazilian nuclear fuel ambition intensifies pressure on U.S., Canada

A Brazilian company quietly announced on July 8 its intention to acquire uranium enrichment technology and thereby become active in the full nuclear fuel cycle. This is something Canada has lobbied hard for over the past few years. The Brazilian announcement increases the diplomatic pressure on the U.S. to resolve the issue as it seeks international support for the groundbreaking civilian nuclear deal it has worked out with India, while leading concurrent diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to halt its own enrichment activities.

As a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Brazil would have to obtain NSG consensus approval to establish a process whereby companies in importing countries could apply for permission to own and have full access to enrichment technology. The only NSG member opposed to full ownership and access is the U.S.

Brazil has supported Canada on this, but may be somewhat less constrained than Canada vis à vis the U.S. because Brazil has not yet elected to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). A U.S. fuel-cycle initiative, GNEP aims to promote nuclear power internationally while closing certain proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle.

It is difficult to see how approvals for enrichment technology imports and the U.S.-India deal are not linked, especially in U.S. negotiations with Brazil and Canada. The Canadian government could probably support the India deal and get away with it politically. The most politically significant, certainly the best informed, segment of the public in Canada appears to be the Indian ex-pat community, and opinion in that community appears generally supportive of the deal.

But what could or should Canada get in return for letting go of its position, strongly held for over three decades, against any nuclear trade with India? American permission for enrichment imports might be right off the table: Iran would surely point to it as further evidence of an unfair international nuclear trade regime. And, since facile anti-Americanism is very much alive and well, Iran would likely win yet more sympathy for this facile position.

If U.S. agreement on enrichment is a non-starter at this time, what about upgraded status in GNEP, in which Canada was originally envisioned by the partnership’s designers as a fuel recipient state (which it clearly is not)? Canadian power reactor technology, together with a spent-fuel conditioning technology jointly developed by the U.S., South Korea, and Canada, could play the central role in a “non-separative” first phase of U.S. spent LWR fuel reprocessing. This could prove more lucrative than enrichment.

And it would likely be more acceptable, from an anti-proliferation point of view, to those within the U.S. government who drive anti-proliferation policy, than the current proposal for dealing with LWR spent fuel in the U.S.

5 comments for “Brazilian nuclear fuel ambition intensifies pressure on U.S., Canada

  1. July 28, 2008 at 23:14

    I guess we can only hope that Canada stays in the game, somehow, and takes advantage of various opportunities as they pop up. I just read this summary:

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/07/deep-burn-and-seriously-scaling-nuclear.html

    I think it gives us some idea of the amount of change that is taking place. We know how to run a world wide, fission based, proliferation free, electricity service – use molten salt fuel containing thorium. However, the big players have too much money sunk into current plants and they want today’s technology to continue. As a result we struggle with proliferation issues that actually have simple technical solutions.

    I dont expect GNEP to be significant. And Canada just somehow has to figure out how to get over the fact that India lied to us once.

    Already, Iran’s attempts are looking rusty and out of date as they struggle with their inefficient centrifuges. Laser driven enrichment processing is just so much better. It is just not possible to play in this game using black market methods and late-night, one-time deals. Iran will never be a military threat using this approach, though they can continue to be a pest with their incredible propaganda.

    I guess this will all come to a boil some time this year. Ontario will have to choose a reactor design. All the designs proposed will require enriched uranium fuel. Will Ontario be willing to put its electricity supply in the grip of the USA fuel manufacturers? And later on, will Quebec?

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  3. Steve Aplin
    August 1, 2008 at 06:42

    Good questions Randal, and good point also about the sunk-cost factor that seems to be driving the current GNEP tech proposal. You might be right about GNEP, especially since descriptions of it frequently come with the name “Bush” prefixed or suffixed—which means that a Democratic congress might see little downside in canning the whole thing on that basis. That would be unfortunate, because GNEP is the most comprehensive attempt since Atoms for Peace to spread nuclear power technology while preventing proliferation.

    Also, a big impetus for GNEP is the ever growing stockpile of spent LWR fuel in the U.S. and the political difficulties of getting Yucca Mt. up and running. A shift in focus toward a medium-term solution and a different technological approach—DUPIC rather than fast burners using UREX/COEX/Pyro fuel—and it could be viable. But like you said, a lot of time and effort has been sunk into the fast burner approach.

  4. Steve Aplin
    August 1, 2008 at 06:46

    Thanks Nuke Medic,

    Yes, these are the same basic objections to atomic power that have always been there. Throw in the big up-front capital cost, which necessitates government involvement, and the obstacles to nuclear remain very challenging. But not insurmountable.

  5. August 1, 2008 at 09:59

    To Nuke Medic

    The association between commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons could be a lot weaker. Some countries use uranium enrichment to make nuclear weapons, and then spin off a nuclear power industry from this central military industry. The idea is to reduce the negative impression of nuclear weapons by showing a peaceful use of nuclear technology as well. Unfortunately, this association works two ways, and it has made the growth of nuclear electric power more difficult than it needs to be. Canada, for example, has shown that we can have nuclear electrical power without enrichment and without the military possession of nuclear weapons. Again, unfortunately, Canada’s good example has not been taken up by the major nuclear powers.

    Some people think that we should use different terminology to describe nuclear based electricity. Different names would weaken the association between reactors and weapons in people’s minds. I support this approach, but I dont think it is the entire answer. For example, I always use terms like “reusable reactor fuel” for the stuff that enviro-alarmists call “waste”. An interesting attempt to use less threatening terminology can be seen here:

    http://www.terrestrialenergy.org/

    Click the “View Intro” link to run the introduction. It is well done.

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