Canada to Send Uranium Back to U.S.
The Vancouver Sun
Monday, April 12, 2010
WASHINGTON — Canada has agreed to ship an 11-year stockpile of highly enriched uranium back to the United States out of concern the spent fuel could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to produce a nuclear weapon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Monday.
Seeking to burnish Canada's reputation with President Barack Obama on the opening day of a global summit on arms control, Harper said the world faced an "immediate threat" from nuclear terrorism unless nations moved to secure supplies of bomb-grade uranium.
The deal will result in supplies of spent inventories of uranium at the Chalk River Laboratories, northwest of Ottawa, being shipped to the United States over an eight-year period, starting this year.
"While all of this material is obviously highly secure in Canada, this was highly enriched uranium (that) originated in the United States," Harper said at a news conference after his arrival for the two-day meeting in Washington. "It's our view that the best thing for all countries to do — not just ourselves — is to return such material to their countries or origin."
He added: "The best defence is to store nuclear material in conditions of maximum security."
A senior Canadian government official said that about 50 per cent of the highly enriched uranium waste currently stored at the Chalk River facility would be returned to the United States, where it be processed into a form that can't be used to make nuclear bombs.
For issues of security, the Harper government will not say how much spent uranium that represents. Canada will maintain a supply of fresh highly enriched uranium to produce medical isotopes for radiation therapy.
The decades-old National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, which has supplied a majority of the world's medical isotopes, has been shut down since last May to undergo repairs after a leak of heavy water. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. recently said repairs would not be completed at least until next month.
Harper is joining national leaders and officials from 47 countries in Washington for the two-day nuclear summit, organized as part of an ambitious non-proliferation agenda being pursued by Obama.
Over the past two weeks, Obama has signed an updated nuclear-arms-reduction agreement with Russia and announced a new U.S. policy, setting tighter restrictions on the conditions under which the U.S. would use a nuclear weapon.
In addition to Canada's announcement, the White House said Obama had struck a deal with the government of Ukraine to give up all of its highly enriched uranium over the next two years.
"This is something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than 10 years," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "The material is enough to construct several nuclear weapons."
Gibbs also applauded Harper's announcement, saying it "demonstrates Canada's strong leadership on nuclear security, and its close partnership with the United States on key global issues."
Non-proliferation experts mostly welcomed the announcement as a significant step that might prompt other nations to take similar action.
"The principle that the prime minister enunciated — that anybody who has imported bomb-grade uranium should return that material from whence it came — is very responsible and very helpful for global efforts," said Alan Kuperman, director of the nuclear proliferation prevention program at the University of Texas in Austin.
According to Kuperman, Canada has about 400 kilograms of spent bomb-grade uranium at Chalk River — enough for several nuclear weapons.
"No one thinks Canada is a proliferation risk but certainly the security at U.S. military facilities is better than it is at Chalk River," said Kuperman. "It sets a good example for other countries to do the same."
Kuperman said the decision to return waste fuel was significant because — even though it is considered spent after being used to produce medical isotopes — the uranium is still dangerous enough to make bombs of strengths comparable to the one used in Hiroshima in 1945.
"It is still highly enriched but it's not very radioactive, which means you can handle it without killing yourself," he said. "Those two qualities make the spent (highly enriched uranium) a really risky material with respect to terrorism."
By some estimates, there is enough nuclear material in 2,000 locations around the globe to make more than 100,000 atomic bombs.
John Polanyi, a Nobel laureate and University of Toronto chemist, praised Ottawa's decision as an "excellent move" but said Canada needs to get out of the business of using highly enriched uranium for the commercial production of medical isotopes altogether.
"I look for the wider moral lesson to be drawn, which is that we shouldn't be trafficking in dangerous material for commercial use," said Polanyi.
Polanyi questioned why Canada has not also agreed to return fresh highly enriched uranium to the United States that it has kept in storage, saying Canada still has a stockpile of unused highly enriched uranium that was intended for two Maple reactors at Chalk River that have were cancelled in 2008.
Canadian officials said negotiations were still ongoing over how to ship the spent nuclear fuel and where it will be processed to be rendered safe.
Asked whether that work could be done in Canada, Harper said his government did not want to risk the proliferation of unwanted knowledge about enriching uranium.
"While I suppose it's conceivable we could develop that knowledge, it's not one that we particularly want to become proficient at," Harper said.
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