North Korea cares not how Canada makes medical isotopes

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.

Did these guys go nuclear because Canada makes medical isotopes using high enriched uranium? No, they went nuclear for political and strategic reasons. They won’t give up their nuclear arsenal if Canada stops using HEU; what Canada does with HEU is irrelevant.

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.

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9 years ago

As I seem to be saying more and more often in internet debates, acquiring nuclear weapons is a decision made due to geopolitics, not due to technology. And it’s certainly nothing to do with nuclear power; there are far more countries with nuclear power than with nuclear weapons, and there are none that used a functioning nuclear power plant to enable them to develop nuclear weapons.

9 years ago
Reply to  Joffan

Of course the decisions are political. That’s why sanctions and inspections ultimately cannot prevent any country with the necessary technology from developing its own nuclear arsenal if it chooses to do so. But if there is no possible civilian purpose for a given technology, then the whole world has a much clearer
warning and much moire time and rationale to respond to the threat in a political manner, which requires time and clarity in order to be effective at a global geopolitical level. The civilian industry provides a very
useful camouflage to hide military intentions or at least to sow confusion among those who are observers. And that, in turn, is why terminating all civilian use of HEU is a darn good idea. This is not rocket science, but even a rocket scientist should be able to grasp the common sense of it.

9 years ago

There are people who think that ANY refined uranium or plutonium is “bomb material”; I’ve seen some who think that nuclear reactors can blow up like bombs.  We know that these people are ignorant, or to the extent that they have knowledge, deluded; the problem is, how do we convince the public of that?

9 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

Ignorance cuts both ways. It so happens that any refined plutonium IS bomb material. In fact ALL of the plutonium isotopes, including the even-numbered isotopes, and more powerful nuclear explosives than uranium-235 (HEU) and have a smaller critical mass. Ignoramuses in the nuclear industry are often fooled into thinking that because plutonium-240 is not “fissile” that it is therefore not a nuclear explosive. You would think that they have never learned the difference between slow neutrons and fast neutrons. Those who are enthusiastic supporters of nuclear technology should learn a little humility and a great deal more caution in making their categorical statements as if they came thundering out of the mouth of God or his equivalent.

9 years ago

Good article as usual Steve.
I do disagree with one statement though, that is: “high purity plutonium requires both HEU and high purity uranium-238.”

If one chose, you could in fact, produce weapons-grade plutonium (>90% Pu-239) in a natural uranium fuelled reactor. All that would be required is a chemical reprocessing plant to extract the plutonium and a conversion step to convert to metallic Pu.

9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

… I wonder if an HEU fueled heavy water reactor firing neutrons at U-238 targets would yield plutonium of far higher quality (i.e., mostly Pu-239) than any other Pu-production method.

No, the fraction (atoms of 239-Pu)/(total atoms of all plutonium isotopes) depends hardly at all on the source of the neutrons.

What it depends mainly on is how long the cooking continues, or more precisely and technically, on “burnup”. As antinuclear casuist Walter C. Patterson says,

some of the plutonium-239 absorbs one or more additional neutrons without undergoing fission, becoming plutonium-240, plutonium-241, and plutonium-242. Plutonium-240, which accumulates comparatively rapidly, is susceptible to spontaneous fission …

It is moreover virtually impossible to separate from plutonium-239. Too high a fraction of the 240 isotope makes plutonium somewhat unpredictable as a weapons material: hence the need to remove irradiated fuel before too much plutonium-240 has been created. However, ‘reprocessing’ of fuel to extract plutonium is an expensive and complex operation. Refuelling more often than is strictly necessary to maintain a reactor’s reactivity can only be justified within the remarkable elasticity of military budgeting …

(“Nuclear Power”, second edition, Penguin)

I was going to say he was accurate, but then I noticed one tendentious misuse of terminology that is almost universal, even in the words of people whose purposes it disserves: “fuel”.

When uranium and a moderator are piled up so that the uranium will roast a small fraction of itself to plutonium-239, and — because this fraction is kept small — a small fraction of that to plutonium-240, energy is not the main product. Usually it is not even a byproduct, and therefore there is no nuclear fuel in the picture at all.

9 years ago
Reply to  GRLCowan

Actually, fast neutrons DO interact differently with U-238 than thermal neutrons:  they have a substantial probability of causing fission.

9 years ago
Reply to  GRLCowan

What a crock. Any reactor that fissions uranium is using the uranium as a fuel — electricity production has nothing to do with the use of that word. Don’t research reactors use fuel?
Moreover, by using CANDU’s on-line refuelling feature, just dedicating a small nunber of fuel channels to insert depleted uranium targets, instead of normal fuel buindles, and feeding the target elements through about ten
times faster than normal, will produce a very respectable output of weapons-grade plutonium that is relatively easy tos eparate because of the low fission-product concentration in the target elements.

9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

What matters more is how often you are able to insert and remove the targets. Ideally to make weapons-quality Pu, you would not want to leave the targets in the reactor too long, to avoid producing Pu isotopes higher than 239. What you would then have in the targets is mostly U-238 with a small amount of high quality Pu. The trade-off is by leaving the target in longer, you get more Pu, but also more higher isotopes (undesirable).

9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

A useful search key: (“Emilio Segre” plutonium 240)

9 years ago

Alright, Steve! I’ve been saying the same thing for years: the “bad guys” by definition don’t see the U.S., Canada, or any other Democracy as an example for how to navigate the world and use nuclear materials. If they cared they’d act differently and no longer be “bad guys.” Why we then have to shoot ourselves over the foot about the “dangers” of reprocessing and other “dangerous” nuclear technologies is infuriating. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin


Are you referring to we as in Canada or the US. Canada technically has had diplomatic relations with North Korea since 2001. However, North Korea does NOT have an embassy in Ottawa and Canada doesn’t have one in Pyongyang. Of course the US has not had diplomatic relations with North Korea since the Korean War.

9 years ago

Diplomatic relations between Canada and North Korea were established in 2001, on the premise that engagement offers the best prospect for bringing North Korea into the international community and for promoting human rights. However, North Korea’s more recent pattern of aggressive actions has led Canada to impose increasing restrictions on the relationship. Canada has implemented the binding decisions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) under UNSC Resolution 1718 (2006), adopted in response to North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon on October 9, 2006; and UNSC Resolution 1874 (2009), adopted in response to a nuclear test conducted by North Korea on May 25, 2009. Information on additional Canadian export controls to North Korea is contained in the following section.

The Canadian Ambassador resident in Seoul is responsible for relations with North Korea, while North Korea’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York is accredited to Canada.

9 years ago

“If you want evidence that North Korea does not care”…

…simply consider that their bombs do not use HEU, but Pu.

Sloppy sophism, as always.

9 years ago

It is illuminating to observe the scorn that drips from the phrase “antiproliferation zealots”. God save us from such fanatics! They’re almost as bad as the anti-slavery zealots of pre-Civil War USA, or the feminist zealots that succeeded them. I wonder if the author has ever suspected just a trace of zealotry in those who are determined to believe that nuclear power is destined to save humanity and bring about a nuclear-powered paradise on earth? When one is a “true believer” in a cause, nothing can deter such a person from pursuing that cause. If one believes as an article of faith that nuclear power is both “necessary” for the survival of human civilization, then nothing else matters, does it? Proliferation of nuclear weapons, reactor meltdowns, radioactive contamination on a grand scale — they are just bumps in the road toward…. well, what exactly?