How far backward can Canada bend to win U.S. approval for its aim to import and own uranium enrichment technology? Pretty far, it seems. The federal government surrendered Canada’s dominant position in the international medical isotope market in May when it told Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to cancel work on the Maple reactor program.
This move prompted a lawsuit by MDS, the world’s largest distributor of medical isotopes. MDS had a supply arrangement with AECL to market the Maples’ output had the reactors ever entered production.
The lawsuit accuses AECL, and the Canadian government, of jeopardizing one of MDS’s main sources of income. The suit attaches a potential liability to AECL, a federal crown corporation. This could further diminish AECL’s value should the federal government decide to sell it.
The feds scrapped the Maples in part because of excessive development costs resulting from technical-safety problems that AECL had so far been unable to solve.
But a deeper strategic reason is that the Maples were originally designed to use high-enriched uranium (HEU) targets. Because of concerns over the proliferation-sensitivity of HEU, most responsible nations have agreed to stop using it. Accordingly, AECL and MDS tried beginning in 2000 to figure out a way to convert the reactors to operate with low enriched uranium targets (see article).
AECL appears to have concluded that this conversion would be too expensive. According to the CBC, AECL told the feds as early as November 2007 that it wanted to scrap the project. The feds, involved at the time in negotiating the terms under which Canada would join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, vetoed this suggestion.
The worldwide shift away from HEU has been common knowledge since the 1990s. It would have figured in any scenario planning within AECL, MDS, or the federal government. So why were the Maples scrapped only in May 2008?
Possibly to produce timely media reminders of Canada’s sacrifices at the altar of anti-proliferation. Canada has been negotiating with the U.S. over permission to develop a domestic enrichment industry (see article). Doesn’t the Maples decision, which along with the possibility of losing the Ontario power reactor competition jeopardizes AECL’s very existence as a reactor manufacturer, prove we are a team player on nuclear issues?
The global anti-proliferation regime is undergoing a revolution. The U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal is the biggest event in the revolution so far, but other nations, including Canada, are looking to press their advantage while the time is ripe.
Canada’s fuel enrichment aspiration may signal a shift in strategy in this vein. Canada wants to be an energy superpower. Our moves so far indicate we want this to be based above all on value-added fuel. The question is, even at the expense of reactor manufacturing (see article)?