WASHINGTON — Stores of weapons-grade uranium imported to Canada from the United States to make medical isotopes will be shipped back south of the border amid fears it could fall into terrorist hands and be used to launch nuclear attacks.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Monday that the U.S. and Canada have reached a deal to ensure that hundreds of kilograms of spent, highly enriched uranium at the Chalk River Laboratories near Ottawa is sent stateside.
“Canada recognizes that nuclear terrorism is an immediate threat to global security,” Harper said Monday in Washington, where he’s attending U.S. President Barack Obama’s landmark nuclear security summit along with dozens of other world leaders.
“Terrorists could possibly use highly enriched uranium found in spent nuclear fuel to make bombs. The best defence is to store nuclear material in conditions of maximum security.”
Starting this year and for the following eight years, Harper said, the uranium will head south, where it will be converted by the U.S. Department of Energy into a form that cannot be used for nuclear weapons.
The White House reacted positively to Harper’s announcement.
“We welcome this important announcement from Prime Minister Harper, which demonstrates Canada’s strong leadership on nuclear security, and its close partnership with the United States on key global issues,” said the White House press secretary in a statement released Monday evening.
Chalk River is the world’s leading producer of medical isotopes, used in radiation therapy. But after the isotopes are manufactured, the uranium is kept in Canada and has been accumulating for 20 years.
John Polanyi, the leading Canadian scientist who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, recently told The Canadian Press that there’s enough material at Chalk River “for quite a number of Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons.”
On Monday, Polanyi praised the announcement that came just a few days after he personally urged Harper to practise good “global citizenship” and send the stores of uranium back to the U.S. for secure disposal.
“It’s a very welcome move on the prime minister’s part,” he said from Toronto.
“After the isotopes are manufactured, the residue is just as highly enriched as it ever was and just as hazardous. We shouldn’t have commercial trafficking in anything so dangerous as highly enriched uranium … we need to stop dealing in highly enriched uranium; not just us, but all the countries of the world.”
The Chalk River reactor has been off-line for a year for repairs, and could re-open this summer. But the federal government has signalled it’s moving out of the medical isotopes business, announcing recently it will not build another reactor to replace the aging facility.
The Chalk River situation placed Canada in a conundrum at the nuclear summit. While it’s one of several countries pushing for all nations to move to low-enriched uranium from high-enriched — the technical term for weapons-grade uranium — it had yet to deal with its own mounting stockpiles at Chalk River.
Canada doesn’t produce weapons-grade uranium, and has been importing it for the past two decades from the U.S. for its isotope-producing reactor.
Harper insisted Monday that the uranium stored at Chalk River was never in any danger of being acquired by terrorists for nefarious purposes, and described security at Canada’s nuclear facilities as “world-class.”
“While all this material is obviously highly secure in Canada … it’s our view that the best thing for all countries to do, not just ourselves, is to return such material to their countries of origin, and so we want to encourage others to do that as well.”
When asked why Canada doesn’t convert the uranium itself, Harper said the federal government isn’t interested in getting into the business of producing and managing highly enriched uranium.
Harper is in Washington for Obama’s two-day summit, along with others including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The summit, being held amid the tightest security since Obama’s inauguration last year, comes following a new arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia signed in Prague. The pact will diminish nuclear warheads in each country by about 30 per cent.
Polanyi praised Obama for getting the ball rolling on the issue of highly enriched uranium.
“It’s first rate that Mr. Obama’s initiative has caused this result, and that Mr. Harper has used the opportunity to return this material to the United States, where it will be securely guarded.”