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Canadian Imports of Russian HEU Criticized

A 2010 agreement between a Canadian medical isotope production company to purchase highly enriched uranium from Russia has drawn criticism from nonproliferation analysts who argue it runs contrary to Ottawa's publicized nuclear security promises, the Globe and Mail reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Jan. 25, 2011).

At the inaugural Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to curb his nation's nonmilitary usage of HEU material. That commitment has been called into question by arms control advocates and even some U.S. lawmakers who contend Canada is not moving fast enough in reducing its HEU usage.

Case in point is the decade-long HEU acquisition agreement that the Ottawa company Nordion Inc. -- the planet's top supplier of medical isotopes -- reached in fall 2010 with a Russian firm. Though the uranium agreement comes with a stipulation for Nordion to eventually switch to low-enriched uranium-based isotope production, no deadline for the conversion has been established.

The deal would also allow the Canadian firm to skirt potential new restrictions on the U.S.export of HEU stocks. Canada does not have a domestic uranium enrichment capability and so in the past has relied on HEU imports from the United States for the production of medical isotopes at the government-owned Chalk River plant in Ontario.

The uranium export agreement gives Moscow fewer reasons to lower its civilian sector usage of nuclear weapon-usable uranium even though both Washington and Ottawa have pored hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to protect Russian atomic materials. Nordion, as well, now has less reason to switch to LEU-based isotope production, critics of the deal argue.

“This deal basically makes it impossible for people using the safer material to compete,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies senior researcher Miles Pomper said. “It discourages other countries from converting, which means there’s more HEU in other places, too" (see GSN, March 30, 2010).

As the U.S. medical sector is reliant on Nordion's isotopes, it is not clear that Washington has much leverage in convincing Ottawa to do more to convert to LEU-based isotope production. The Canadian government is pursuing studies on LEU-based medical isotope generation.

Still, Prime Minister Harper is likely to be lobbied on the matter when he takes part in next week's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul (see related GSN story, today).

"There's probably going to be a lot of talk about this on the side," predicted Chad Westmacott of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (Jeremy Torobin, Globe and Mail, March 21).

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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