Yesterday’s PostMedia was abuzz with stories about a plan to ship liquid nuclear reactor waste containing high enriched uranium (HEU) from the Chalk River Lab in Ontario northwest of Ottawa back to the U.S. where the uranium was originally enriched. The stuff poses little actual danger: the Postmedia claim that the liquid could solidify and go critical is made-up nonsense. And the reported “concern” over its existence at Chalk River is more trumped-up antiproliferation zealotry than sober-minded risk assessment. Canada, for reasons mostly related to our middle-power status in the world, obligingly pays lip service to the myth that HEU is bad by definition. Therefore, we must prove we believe this by getting rid of the HEU on our territory—by paying yet more lip service to the even-more-ludicrous notion that somebody could or would steal it to make a bomb.
Why do we import HEU in the first place? We use HEU to make a range of medical isotopes. These materials, and especially molybdenum-99, are used in literally millions of medical procedures each year in Canada and around the world. Canada, from Chalk River, is the world’s biggest supplier of Mo-99. Medical professionals use Canadian Mo-99 first because it works and saves lives, and second because it is cheap. Inexpensive materials help to keep health care affordable.
Nobody except antiproliferation zealots cares that the cheapest and most efficient way to make Mo-99 is to bombard HEU with neutrons in a high flux reactor like the NRU at Chalk River. North Korea certainly does not care. If you want evidence that North Korea does not care, consider today’s news that North Korea has fired a third nuclear bomb. The agreement among respectable countries to phase out HEU is precisely to set an example for nuclear proliferators like North Korea. The reasoning is this: an aspiring proliferator sees, say, Canada phasing out its use of HEU and says “oh, Canada is phasing out HEU, therefore I should refrain from making HEU.”
Clearly, North Korea—which recently acknowledged it has the technology and capability to make HEU—could not care less whether Canada uses the stuff or not. HEU is half of the crucial requirement for making a compact, i.e. weaponizable, plutonium bomb. That kind of bomb requires high-purity plutonium, and high purity plutonium requires both HEU and high purity uranium-238. You can’t have either HEU or pure U-238 without the ability to separate uranium isotopes.
It is exactly the same with the other major global proliferation threat, Iran. Iran, as I have argued elsewhere, launched its current industrial scale uranium enrichment program not because it saw Canada using HEU to make Mo-99 and said “we must do that too.” Iran launched its nuclear program because its bitter enemy and next-door neighbor, Iraq, was doing the same thing. Iran and Iraq fought a vicious and costly eight-year war in the 1980s. The issues that led to that war were never really resolved. Iraq therefore built an industrial scale nuclear weapons program, based on enriched uranium (astonished UN weapons inspectors discovered this literally by accident in the aftermath of the First Gulf War). Iran followed suit.
To repeat, Iran developed a large scale uranium enrichment capability not because countries like Canada use HEU to make medical isotopes. Iran went nuclear because it was in an arms race with Iraq.