Healthcare efficiency more important than posturing in Nordion isotope business

Every once in a while somebody in the media makes an issue out of how and why the Canadian company Nordion dominates the world market for the medical isotope Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). It has come up again, apropos of the Seoul nuclear summit. Nordion owns most of the Mo-99 market because of the way it arranges to have Mo-99 made—in a nuclear fission reactor, using high enriched uranium (HEU) that contains more than 90 percent of the isotope U-235. That is the most efficient way to make large quantities of Mo-99, which is an absolutely essential material for medical diagnosis. Nobody else can compete with Nordion in the North American market—even the mighty General Electric, fed by U.S. government funding, recently gave up trying. However, some people have a problem with Nordion’s supply chain. The problem, they say, is that HEU is also a nuclear bomb material.

By agreement among “responsible” nations, including Canada, the use of HEU is supposed to be phased out. Apparently that is supposed to convince other nations, like Iran, to not produce HEU. This tack doesn’t seem to have had any influence whatsoever on Iran’s current activities. That is because Iran did not have Mo-99 production in mind when it built a cascade of uranium enrichment centrifuges—in secret and without informing the International Atomic Energy Agency until it was “outed” by an opposition group in 2002. Iran built the centrifuges, using stolen designs purchased from Pakistan, because Iran was in a nuclear arms race with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They wanted a nuclear bomb.

The agreement among responsible countries to stop using HEU was based on a glaring non sequitur. Countries don’t develop nuclear weapons because other countries use HEU to make Mo-99. They go nuclear for political, military, security, and strategic reasons.

Besides, the same people who demand the phase-out of HEU are perfectly fine with making Mo-99 using low-enriched uranium (LEU), which contains no more than 19.75 percent U-235, the explosive isotope of uranium. Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent of the explosive isotope. To boost the explosive content to more than 0.7 percent, you need special isotope separation equipment. Centrifuges are currently the most effective.

Here’s the kicker: it’s the same equipment that boosts the explosive content of uranium to 3 percent, or 19.75 percent, or 90 percent. If you possess that equipment, then you possess the capability to enrich uranium to 90 percent.

That’s why everybody is nervous about Iran, even though there’s no proof that Iran has enriched uranium beyond 19.75 percent. That’s not the point. The point is, Iran has the capability to do so. That, together with the way Iran acquired the centrifuges (i.e., by buying stolen designs and then building the machines in secret), combined with Iran’s support of known terrorist groups, is why everybody is nervous.

Returning to Canada, and Nordion: it seems simply facile to claim that Nordion’s use of HEU to make Mo-99 constitutes any kind of nuclear proliferation threat. There’s no more threat of proliferation in Nordion’s use of HEU than there is in my father’s purchase of gasoline for his car. It’s not the material itself that constitutes the treat. It’s who has it, or who can make it.

And speaking of which: who makes the HEU from which Nordion’s Mo-99 is manufactured? The United States. Is there any reason whatsoever to doubt that when the U.S. sells HEU to Canada it’s for peaceful purposes?

Of course not.

A couple days ago the Globe and Mail published a piece outlining Nordion’s 2010 Mo-99 deal with a Russian supplier. While printing the obligatory quotes from the usual muddleheaded anti-proliferation crowd, the piece did emphasize that Mo-99 is essential for medical diagnosis. It helps save lives.

That’s the bottom line.

Steve Aplin Pecha Kucha talk on nuclear proliferation

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The last sentence in the fourth-last paragraph seems to me to have, in its words “anything other than”, one negation too many.

Steve Aplin
8 years ago

GRL, you’re right. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ve amended the offending sentence.

8 years ago

While a fresh load of high enriched uranium might be a somewhat attractive to a group wishing to make a nuclear bomb, after a bit of time in the reactor, the resulting fission products make the stuff pretty much useless for bombs. Not only is it difficult to handle for bomb-making, but the radioactivity from the fission products would quickly destroy the triggers needed to make a bomb work. Very quickly it becomes a whole lot easier to start from scratch by enriching uranium.

Steve Aplin
8 years ago
Reply to  donb

Good point. I’d add that while a fresh load of HEU is theoretically attractive to someone wanting to steal it, in practical terms a plan to hijack an HEU shipment is guaranteed to not work.

Think of what the hijackers would have to do. First, intercept the shipment and defeat the security escort detail (big gunfight). Then spirit the HEU off to some secret location, with local, provincial, national, and international security forces in hot pursuit. Then, assuming a perfect escape, build the bomb in the secret lab. And then bring it to the target and set it off.

Only works if you’re willing to suspend credulity. The Austin Powers writer Mike Myers was more realistic. Dr. Evil was smart enough to hijack a bomb ready made.