You can’t have your yellowcake and hide it

Energy Probe

July 15, 2008

“The international trade in nuclear materials and technology is inherently and uniquely fraught with long-term hazards to world peace and security.”

Energy Probe‘s Norman Rubin made an appearance in a recent report by Global-TV on the delivery this month of 550 metric tons of Iraqi yellowcake uranium to the Canadian uranium producer, Cameco Corp. The yellowcake, described as the last remnant of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear arms program, was bought by Cameco from the United States for a reported sum in the tens of millions of dollars.

Norm’s points of interest concerning the yellowcake deal follow below and include news angles that were not touched on by the Global-TV report and that have yet to be followed up by other media outlets.

According to Norm, although Cameco “solved’ a potential nuclear-proliferation problem by getting some uranium out of unstable Iraq, Cameco and others are selling these same materials to countries that will probably become unstable in the future — long before the uranium itself becomes safe. (Says Norm: the Uranium-235 isotope boasts a billion-year half-life, so the ‘hazard’ can wait).

Norm argues that although the origin of the uranium yellowcake has not been revealed, what is clear is that Canada has long been willing to sell uranium and other nuclear materials and technology to Iraq, making Canada a possible source of origin, perhaps even Cameco itself, or one of its predecessor companies! Atomic Energy Canada Limited competed with France to sell Saddam-era Iraq the Osiraq research reactor — the same reactor destroyed by Israeli fighter pilots in the 1980s. In fact, says Norm, one source quotes a French nuclear official as saying that Canada’s AECL had even promoted the superior plutonium producing advantage of the Canadian design as a selling point.

The Associated Press story that has served as the basis for most coverage of the Iraqi yellowcake deal reports (and it’s the first time I’ve seen it reported – Norm) that Iraq also received four highly radioactive gamma sources from Canada’s MDS Nordion (presumably the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, which can be used directly for the making of a ‘dirty bomb’). These were reportedly removed from Iraq earlier in 2008 and returned to Nordion in Canada, by the US military.

Rather than neutralizing the threat, using yellowcake to make fuel for a civilian reactor makes the material more nuclear-weapons-usable (and therefore more ‘dirty bombs’ usable), says Norm. Specifically, he says, the used reactor fuel that it produces contains “almost 1000 bombs’-worth of plutonium.” Extracting the plutonium for use in a nuclear bomb is technically much simpler than turning yellowcake into any other kind of weapons material. But even though plutonium’s half-life to safety is a ‘mere’ 24,000 years, that’s still long enough a wait for even Canada to have become destabilized, nuclear-militaristic, or similar.

In short, says Norm, “the international trade in nuclear materials and technology is inherently and uniquely fraught with long-term hazards to world peace and security.”

Norm notes that yellowcake — a very crude form of uranium, neither extremely hazardous nor especially easy to use for nuclear weapons — isn’t usually shipped with top-secret ultra-secure handling. But for some reason, the Iraqi yellowcake was. Perhaps, says Norm, “to give the erroneous impression that it was connected somehow to Saddam’s non-existent post-Gulf-War stockpile of WMDs?”

One angle to this sale that has yet to be explored: Cameco is currently a willing buyer of uranium, partly because its output has nosedived since the 2006 flooding of its huge Cigar Lake mine in northern Saskatoon. That mine was scheduled to produce huge quantities of uranium this year, but its opening is now delayed until at least 2011.

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