Nuclear diplomacy gets complicated
Hat tip to Rod Adams at Atomic Insights
A burst of energy in a successful drive by the Canadian province of Saskatchewan has gained policy support to develop uranium enrichment capabilities. The decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group will allow uranium operations in Canada move up the value chain of the nuclear fuel cycle.
It has put international diplomacy on the issue into high gear. The Wall Street Journal reports (sub req'd) on 4/19/08 that the Bush Administration gave in to "heavy pressure" from Canada which wants to sell enriched uranium on the global market. [Update on Reuters 04/21/08]
The decision which took place at a meeting earlier this week of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-nation body, removes a "ban" on new uranium enrichment facilities for nations that do not already have them. It establishes broad guidelines for sale of the material and the technologies to make it. It is tailor made for Canada's push to earn more for its massive uranium exports which account for about one-third of the global market.
What's up GNEP?
Canada is also a member of GNEP, the global nuclear fuel consortium. Nominally, as part of this relationship, which was set in place last Fall, Canada will receive nuclear fuel and also participate in a global protocol for management of spent nuclear fuel. The shift this week will make Canada a supplier of nuclear fuel.
While the current outlook is for Canada for add a uranium enrichment plant to its nuclear industrial base, there is nothing that would prevent it from also taking an additional step and convincing a partner to build a fuel fabrication facility to further enhance export earnings. Finally, last summer Canadian energy officials gave public signals that nuclear fuel reprocessing was also part of that nation's long term plans. In effect Canada is on the road to being a key player in the global nuclear fuel cycle.
Critics of the move by the U.S. at the NSG say the policy change will effectively throw in the towel on efforts to restrain other countries, like Iran and India, which have asserted their rights to develop nuclear technologies unfettered by western nonproliferation treaties. The new rules put forward by the NSG would require IAEA oversight. Problems with these two countries aren't necessarily Canada's concern, but the linkage is there just the same.
John Wolf, a former U.S. diplomat, told the WSJ, "It is hard to see how this would deal with the problem there are already too many people enriching and reprocessing fuel."
Canada's drive for an enrichment plant
The Bush Administration has been under considerable pressure from Canada which currently exports more a third of the world's uranium supply. Saskatchewan in one of the primary uranium mining centers. The provincial premier, Brad Wall, launched a public initiative last month with a race through the corridors of energy policy making in Washington, DC, to get the U.S. to support a change in the G8 policy. Apparently, he's succeeded. Wall is so entrepreneurial in this realm that the only thing he hasn't tried is to kidnap Areva's planned U.S. uranium enrichment plant for Saskatchewan, at least not yet.
Canada's CANDU reactors built by AECL don't use enriched uranium which means all of the product, if it is produced, will be for export. The exception is the ACR1000 which is in the design stage and has just entered regulatory review. AECL hasn't actually built one so the reference to the CANDU reactors will be correct until they do.
The capacity of the enrichment plant will still likely exceed demand in Canada over the next decade even if ACR1000s are built in Alberta, Ontario, and New Brunswick. The assessment that the purpose of the plant is to produce product for export is still relevant even under the most optimistic scenario for AECL market share for these sites.
An area of future diplomatic negotiation will be Canada's plans to sell uranium enrichment technology to other nations. There's a growing demand for it. One reason is the nuclear salesmanship of French President Nicholas Sarkozy who in a series of whirlwind trips has stirred up interest in a baker's dozen of countries in the Middle East who now want nuclear energy. These countries are not going to move forward without guarantees for nuclear fuel.
In the U.S. the race is on to build uranium enrichment plants with two under construction - one in New Mexico, and the other in Ohio. A third plant is planned by Areva, which has not yet announced its location. More recently, U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) said the U.S. should stop beating itself up over Yucca Mountain and get back into the business of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
Uranium and the energy value of spent nuclear fuel are simply too valuable to be contained by world wide market demand for electricity and nuclear energy needed to supply it. The market forces at work are creating deals between partners that might have been unthinkable or at least difficult a decade ago.
Another Toshiba exchange deal for uranium
Reuters reports that Toshiba will receive highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Russia in a deal that will supply the Atom Energy group in that country with technology to build nuclear power plants. Last winter Toshiba sold off a 10% stake in Westinghouse in return for access to uranium from Kazakhstan. This latest exchange is a clear signal that world wide commerce in nuclear materials and technologies is going to take place with or without U.S. agreement. The GNEP international fuel program doesn't cover this type of deal.
Meanwhile, Russia is also setting up an International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk, Siberia. Japan recently expressed concern that the center be operated under IAEA safeguards. Japan is also a potential partner in the facility.
Next administration please
All this activity undercuts U.S. efforts to contain Iran's drive for uranium enrichment and makes the now moribund nuclear deal with India look even more complicated. The important differences are that Iran's government is out to lunch and clearly wants nuclear weapons despite having signed the nuclear nonproliferation treat. India's current government in power, which already has nuclear weapons, but refused to sign the treaty, is conflicted by domestic power disputes that pulled the rug out from the deal with the U.S.
In the twilight of the Bush Administration, the drive for civilian nuclear power globally has pushed a difficult set of issues forward into the presidency of whoever is elected next November.