Gordon Edwards, January 12, 2021
Uranium enrichment is indeed a proliferation-sensitive technology as is clearly demonstrated by the Iranian situation. Even though, under the terms of the NPT and all other international accords, Iran has the right to enrich uranium to any degree that might be desired, for civilian purposes only, in practical terms the western powers do not at all trust Iran to exercise that right. So they are prohibited from doing so, even to the 20% (minus epsilon) level, which is what many of the proposed SMNR designs require.
Right up until the final shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Canada was using weapons-grade uranium (>93%) targets for the production of technetium-99m generators for use in hospitals around the world, and I was told by an Iranian scientist in Salzburg that Iran wanted weapons-grade uranium for exactly the same reason – medical isotopes. All of this ignoring the fact that weapons-grade uranium is NOT needed for this purpose, whether in Canada or anywhere else, and in actual fact technetium-99m generators can be produced in a cost-effective manner without the use of a nuclear reactor of any kind, or even using uranium of any kind.
But – in the interests of a nuclear weapons free world – Canada should indeed be encouraging the international / multinational control (or oversight) of ALL enrichment facilities.
But that is small potatoes. Canada claims the NPT is the backbone of its non-proliferation commitment, but India has not signed the NPT and has already developed a nuclear weapons capability beginning in 1974 with plutonium produced in a Canadian reactor (the CIRUS, a clone of the NRX). Whereupon Canada insisted there would be no more nuclear cooperation between Canada and India – but all the time, India remained a member of COG (the CANDU Owners Group) and went on to build more than a dozen CANDU “clones” without direct Canadian help (other than the fact that we sold them under very generous terms the original CANDUS that were the cookie-cutter models for all the others. And then, under Stephen Harper, we resumed sales of uranium to India without any requirement that they get rid of their nuclear arsenal or even stop expanding it, and without signing the NPT. Which makes all the other countries who signed the NPT to have access to Canadian uranium and/or technology look like fools, because India got all the goodies without accepting the NPT responsibilities. Canada should stop selling uranium to India if the NPT is really so important.
But even that is small potatoes. Article VI of the NPT says that the “ official nuclear weapons states USA, UK, France, Russia and China, must negotiate in good faith not only to eliminate nuclear weapons but to achieve general and complete disarmament (i.e. elimination of armies and an end to war). Clearly, none of these nuclear superpowers are embarked on such a path, and until they do, Canada should refuse to sell uranium to any of them. Or at least should put constant pressure on the, to comply with Article VI. The fact that these things are not done indicates that Canada is only paying lip-service when it says that NPT is the basis for its non-proliferation policies.
These same considerations should apply when it comes to the extraction of plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel. At the very least, there should be a requirement for such facilities (reprocessing plants) to be under international control just as enrichment plants should be under international control. Of course, better yet would be the abolition of reprocessing and uranium enrichment altogether, taking Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 1978 “strategy of suffocation” to its ultimate limit. PET told the UN General Assembly that if we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we must end the arms race – and we must begin with a strategy of suffocation, to choke off the vital oxygen on which it feeds, meaning the production of the two “strategic nuclear materials” which serve as primary nuclear explosives, i.e. weapons-grade uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. However we now know that, for weapons purposes, ALL plutonium is “good” plutonium, so the division of plutonium into weapons-grade and non-weapons-grade is illusory. Ultimately, then, the strategy of suffocation means no nuclear reactors whatsoever.