Chalk River's use of weapons-grade uranium under attack

The Ottawa Citizen: Scott Cressman - December 21, 2007

OTTAWA - Canada's insistence on using weapons-grade material at its Chalk River, Ont., nuclear reactor could compromise safety and jeopardize the country's international reputation as a leader in nuclear safety, critics say.

"MDS Nordion has been putting profits ahead of safety and security," said Alan Kuperman, senior policy analyst at Washington D.C.'s Nuclear Control Institute. "MDS Nordion has not been socially responsible."

Chalk River, about 100 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, holds enough concentrated nuclear matter to create a bomb, which is an unnecessary risk, Kuperman said.

Edwin Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said research facilities, including one at Chalk River's Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., can't properly guard this highly enriched uranium from terrorists, so they should not use it.

Kuperman noted that countries such as Argentina and Australia have already stopped using weapons-grade matter to produce medical isotopes, while the Netherlands and South Africa are now converting to less-powerful nuclear material.

But Canada's Crown-owned AECL and MDS Nordion have resisted a similar conversion at Chalk River. The two companies were one until Canada privatized the retail and processing parts of its isotope-creating business, and sold it to MDS Inc. in 1991. The new business became known as MDS Nordion.

In the 1990s, MDS Nordion worked with AECL to build two new reactors and an isotope processing plant to replace the 50-year-old reactor that is still operating now at Chalk River, Kuperman said. Nordion pledged that the new facilities would use only the less enriched nuclear material, he said, but that has not happened. If anything, he said, the company has dragged its feet on converting away from the weapons-grade material.

Right now, however, the responsibility lies with AECL, which is charged with overseeing the conversion to less powerful nuclear material. And AECL has not yet committed to going that route.

AECL runs the reactor that creates raw material, which MDS Nordion, in turn, processes and sells worldwide as isotopes for medical diagnostic procedures. The reactor uses low-enriched uranium for fuel, but weapons-grade material for extracting the isotope.

The corporation, however, insists that all nuclear material is stored safely at its sites.

Dale Coffin, AECL's director of corporate communications, said Canada's nuclear policies have kept pace with other nations' standards.

"We're extremely confident that we meet all the conditions that are required for these materials," Coffin said.

He added that the company continues to work toward a switch to the low-enriched uranium to produce isotopes, but no timeframe for the conversion has yet been established.

In fact, he said, changing production methods now would hurt Chalk River's isotope supply and quality.

"For now, there doesn't seem to be an economically viable way to produce medical isotopes with LEU (low-enriched uranium)," he said.

Kuperman, however, argued that converting to less concentrated nuclear material would not disrupt the world's isotope stock. The process would cost the company some time and money, but eventually be safer and relatively easy, he said. It should have been done long ago.

Canada touts itself as a global security leader, Kuperman said, but won't give up the risky highly enriched uranium. Canada calls on others to obey global norms and standards, but in this case is the primary rule-breaker.

"It's 'Do as we say, not as we do,'" Kuperman said. "Why has the Canadian government been essentially complicit in this irresponsible behaviour?"

Lyman agreed that security at research reactors has been a global concern for decades. "There are holdouts and Canada is one of them."

"There really is no good reason" to keep using the concentrated fuel, he said.

Coffin insisted that AECL's security measures meet global standards and are periodically reviewed by an independent third party.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, however, found the Chalk River reactor's safety systems lacking and shut it down Nov. 18. In an emergency decision Dec. 11, Parliament overrode the regulatory decision and ordered the facility to restart its isotope production.

Kuperman, however, said the move was unnecessary because Belgian and Dutch reactors could have fulfilled the world's medical isotope demand.

"That decision can only be made out of ignorance or because you think money is more important than safety," Kuperman said.

Lyman, for his part, said he is puzzled that Canada supports the existing reactor and its forthcoming replacements, especially since the nation promotes nuclear security. Canada's continued use of highly enriched uranium is "not demonstrating good faith towards non-proliferation."

Kuperman, moreover, warned that the reactor's fuel source could dry up if the U.S. decides to crack down on exports of weapons-grade uranium, or simply stop selling it as more isotope producers switch to the less powerful material. Fears of terrorist theft or sabotage have made the U.S. uneasy about its nuclear exports in the past; within three to five years, he said, civilian companies could lose their access to the stronger nuclear material.

"The writing is on the wall that the U.S. is going to phase out its exports of HEU (highly enriched uranium)," Kuperman said. "The good news for Nordion is that if it decides to convert, it still has time."

Switching its processing facilities would take about three years, he said, so Chalk River would need to get started soon.

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