MDS Nordion has enough enriched uranium for a bomb

Ian McLeod
Ottawa Citizen
June 9, 2002

Ottawa’s MDS Nordion is creating a tempting target for nuclear terrorists by unnecessarily stockpiling enough highly enriched uranium to build at least one nuclear bomb, says a respected U.S nuclear watchdog group.

The March Road company, the leading world supplier of radioisotopes for medical treatment and diagnosis, has 45.2 kilograms of highly enriched uranium – a two-year supply – waiting for the company’s long-delayed MAPLE nuclear reactors to go into service at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s Chalk River laboratories, northwest of Ottawa. A senior Nordion executive says about 22 kilograms of highly enriched uranium will likely be imported from the U.S. this year and added to the Chalk River stockpile, ending a temporary Nordion moratorium on uranium shipments because of the MAPLE startup delays. The company has an option to bring in another 22.6 kilograms next year under its U.S. export licence.

If so, Nordion and AECL will be sitting on a total of 90.4 kilograms of highly enriched uranium earmarked for the idle MAPLE isotope reactors by the time the export licence expires next year. Commercial operation of the primary MAPLE 1 reactor, delayed by technical problems for almost three years, won’t start until next spring or summer, at the earliest.

The situation is sending a post-Sept. 11 chill through nuclear and environmental policy groups in Canada and the U.S: experts say a nuclear bomb can be built with less than 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and a high-school knowledge of physics.

“There is already enough HEU for one or more nuclear bombs sitting in Eastern Ontario,” says Alan Kuperman, a senior policy analyst with the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C.

“This is a terrorist target just sitting there. It doesn’t mean (terrorists) could use the bomb in Ontario. But it certainly makes it a target of these sorts of groups, a very logical target, someone coming along and trying to steal this stuff. For better or worse, some (terrorists) who have come into the U.S. infiltrated into Canada first.

“The question is . . . how exactly is this material guarded and is it guarded as nuclear weapons material?”

Nordion says the institute is exaggerating the potential threat.

“It would be the first time that I’ve ever heard that Canada is a proliferation threat,” says Grant Malkoske, Nordion’s vice-president of engineering and technology.

He also suggests that any prolonged halt of Nordion’s supply of U.S. uranium would threaten the benefits nuclear medicine offers to millions of sick and suffering individuals. “If we didn’t have HEU here to produce medical isotopes, the world would be in difficult shape.”

The Nuclear Control Institute isn’t swayed. It recently renewed a formal request, first made last year, to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject any new uranium requests from Nordion/AECL until commercial production actually begins at MAPLE.

“The beginning of production is a far off prospect and so there’s no reason to export any more in 2002,” says Mr. Kuperman.

The institute also is a leading advocate for getting all civilian research and isotope reactors in Canada, Europe and elsewhere to use non-weapons-grade uranium, or low-enriched uranium (LEU).

In exchange for a five-year licence to export U.S. highly enriched uranium, Nordion pledged to abide by a U.S. non-proliferation law, commonly called the Schumer Amendment, requiring it to pursue all reasonable measures to convert the MAPLE facilities to use low-enriched uranium. A condition of its licence is that it make annual reports to the commission – the latest was delivered to Washington last week – on its progress toward conversion to low-enriched uranium.

But Mr. Kuperman, along with Energy Probe, the Canadian nuclear watchdog group, accuse Nordion of dragging its feet on conversion to low-enriched uranium. The result, they say, is a dangerous proliferation of weapons-grade uranium in the Ottawa Valley.

“They want to use HEU in perpetuity,” says Mr. Kuperman.

Mr. Malkoske dismisses the charges. “What we’re trying to do is responsibly manage inventory.”

The MAPLE highly enriched uranium stored at Chalk River is Nordion’s attempt to meet its “obligation to the nuclear medicine community not to be short stocking medical isotopes,” he says. “The problem with HEU is that it is not a commodity type material, it’s very tightly controlled, very heavily regulated, (and) the procurement cycle is long and protracted. We just want to make sure there’s enough inventory in the pipeline.”

Whenever MAPLE 1 goes online, it will be used to irradiate the highly enriched uranium with neutrons, producing molybdenum-99, which decays into technetium-99m, the isotope most widely used in hospitals and clinics. (MAPLE 2 is to be used as a backup reactor.)

Nordion says technetium-99m and the company’s other radioisotopes are used in 50,000 medical tests around the world each day to diagnose cancer and heart disease, as well as to detect abnormalities in the brain, heart, lungs, liver, thyroid, kidneys and bone.

“The material itself is contained in AECL’s licensed facility, a Class 1 facility, it has specific security requirements, endorsed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. In terms of a terrorist threat, I don’t think so.”

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this week that Nordion is operating within government regulations.

“I get a little bit anxious when people call it weapons-grade,” says Mr. Malkoske. “For me, it’s isotope-production grade. You can use it for other purposes. It’s like gasoline, you can use it to run your car or you can use it to light a fire. If you use it for what it’s intended for, it’s not a concern.”

Norman Rubin, Energy Probe’s director of nuclear research, doesn’t buy that argument. “Jet fuel was used to bring down the World Trade Center. We’re all a little smarter, maybe a lot smarter, than we were a year ago and it’s time that Chalk River got as smart as Washington, D.C.,” he says.

“We are presenting an attractive target to malicious humans who’d love to get their hands on nuclear weapons material.

“Not only are they playing with fire, in the sense that everybody but them is more concerned about theft, diversion, malice, terrorism, than we were a year ago, but . . . the U.S. has taken a principled stance to stop spreading nuclear-weapons useable material around in the guise of civilian activity and their clients have agreed (to convert to low-enriched uranium). I believe the only exception, (is) the otherwise nice country called Canada.”

But Mr. Malkoske said Nordion never agreed to convert to low-enriched uranium at any cost.

“It is not written in stone,” he says. “Technically, it seems feasible to me, but what’s it going to cost to do this? Everytime you add costs you pass that on to the health-care community, you increase the cost of nuclear medicine.

“What we said we would do . . . is do a technical and economic feasibility (study) and if it was economically feasible then we would convert. We didn’t say we were going to convert at any cost. That could kill our business.”

If conversion to low-enriched uranium does go ahead, he estimated it wouldn’t be until 2007, at the earliest, meaning Nordion and AECL may have to continue importing highly enriched uranium from the U.S. if MAPLE 1 goes into production next year.

Mr. Rubin says Canadians “should be concerned and outraged.”

“Canada, a nation of peace-loving people, is behaving in an outrageous manner, thwarting the attempts of our neighbours to the south to limit the spread of nuclear-weapons usable material.

“The U.S. should make it very clear that no more HEU is coming to Canada. If that means Nordion has to convert quickly rather than slowly, then that’s what they have to do. If it means that they’re uncompetitive . . . then that’s the right answer.”

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