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.