July 19 2001
The Honorable Richard Meserve
Request for Public Meeting
We are writing in response to MDS Nordions second annual submission to the Commission, dated May 31, 2001, on its progress in converting production of medical isotopes from targets of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) to targets of low enriched uranium (LEU) not suitable for weapons. Nordion, based on the submission, appears to have finally begun to take some steps toward an active program to develop LEU targets. However, Nordions submission also raises some very troubling questions about its commitment to actually convert to these targets. As you know, such a commitment is a prerequisite, under the Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 1992, for Nordion to continue receiving exports of HEU targets, which are permitted only on an interim basis prior to conversion.
Accordingly, we urge the Commission to convene a public meeting to gather further information from Nordion, as well as from officials of the RERTR Program at Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. executive branch, the Nuclear Control Institute, and possibly other non-governmental organizations. You will recall that the Commission, in its decision approving Nordions export license (XSNM 03060), explicitly reserved the right to call such a meeting after each annual progress report, and did convene such a meeting after the first annual progress report last summer.
A new meeting should address at least four issues: (1) the schedule for Phase 2 of the conversion program; (2) the schedule for Phase 3 of the conversion program; (3) the anticipated accumulation of large surplus stocks of HEU by Nordion due to delays in start-up of the MAPLE reactors; and (4) Nordions revelation that it will request an increase in the amount of HEU authorized for export under the license.
Schedule for Phase 2 of the Conversion Program
Some members of the Commission may previously have been reluctant to explore the details of Nordions conversion schedule. However, that schedule now has been stretched out to such an extent that it demands oversight by the Commission in order to reassess compliance with the Schumer requirements. Last year, Phase 2 of the conversion program was estimated by Nordion to require a total of 18 months, culminating at the end of 2001. Now Nordion estimates it will require 42 months, culminating at the end of 2003. Thus, the new time estimate is some 233% of the original. Nordion provides little justification for this delay in its submission. If Nordion is stretching out the schedule far beyond what is necessary, it calls into question its actual commitment to conversion, pursuant to Schumer. If the Commission approves of such delays now without adequate justification, it will only increase the likelihood of further delays in the future that may also run afoul of Schumer compliance.
Schedule for Phase 3 of the Conversion Program
Nordion provides even less justification for its estimate that Phase 3 the obtaining of regulatory approval will require three years. Such a time estimate might make sense if the applicant were seeking safety approval of a new nuclear reactor, and if the applicant could not begin submitting data to regulators until the beginning of this phase. But neither is true in this case. The main nuclear regulatory approval being sought from Canadian regulators is for modification of a waste processing component at the back end of the New Processing Facility (NPF), a matter far less complicated and time-consuming than evaluating the safety of a new nuclear reactor.
Moreover, Nordion should be able to begin submitting data to Canadian nuclear regulators prior to the beginning of Phase 3, as it is obtained during the preceding Phase 2. The other main regulatory approval being sought is from Canadian and American health officials for actual clinical use of the isotopes produced with the LEU targets. Such approvals previously have been estimated to require only six to nine months. Thus, it is hard to envision how Phase 3 could require anywhere close to three years unless Nordion were deliberately dragging its feet. This concern is underscored by the published report citing an official at Argonne National Laboratory that appeared in a recent Nuclear Fuel article (June 25, 2001): The ANL official expressed some doubt about the timetable for Phase 3.
Nordion has tried to offer rhetorical justification of its protracted schedules for Phases 2 and 3 which Nordion estimates will require a combined six and a half years by drawing inappropriate analogies. Nordion cites the example of Indonesia, whose LEU target development program will have required a total of approximately eight years when it reaches fruition later this year. However, it is ludicrous for Nordion to suggest that its target development program in Canada should take anywhere as long as that in a developing country. Nordion also cites the core conversion program at Petten's HFR reactor, which U.S. officials have acknowledged could take as long as six years due to regulatory delays, but this analogy is likewise inapt. The safety and regulatory concerns associated with converting the fuel in Pettens reactor core are significantly greater than those associated with converting the calcining component for solidification of liquid waste in Nordions NPF. This is especially true given that Nordions new calcining component will replace an existing one that already has received regulatory approval to process HEU waste, which is subject to greater criticality concerns.
Anticipated Accumulation of Surplus Stocks of HEU
Nordion continues to import HEU targets despite its inability to begin irradiating these targets due to a significant delay in start-up of the MAPLE reactors. This delay stems from technical problems and the safety concerns of Canadian regulators. Accordingly, unless the Commission takes action, Nordion is on track to acquire increasingly large surpluses of U.S.-origin HEU, directly in contradiction to U.S. policy opposing the accumulation of surpluses of weapons-usable nuclear material, even by close allies. To appreciate the extent of this anticipated surplus, it is necessary to explore in detail the schedules for both the import of HEU targets and the start-up of the MAPLE reactors, as follows.
In its submission, Nordion anticipates that resumption of nuclear commissioning would be in September 2001, at the earliest. Assuming no further regulatory delays and/or technical problems, the MAPLE 1 Reactor and the NPF would be in service in March 2002 and the MAPLE-2 reactor in August 2002. (p. 3) Based on more recent information, however, this schedule already has slipped. In reality, nuclear commissioning cannot commence until at least November 2001, because Nordion must first apply to the CNSC, and it cannot do so until a meeting in October 2001 because it already has missed the deadline for the docket of the August meeting. Assuming optimistically that Nordion is able to apply in October and receives approval to commence commissioning in November, the MAPLE 1 reactor would not enter service until May 2002.
Actual commercial production of isotopes, however, almost certainly could not begin immediately upon the MAPLE 1 reactor entering into service. This is because Nordion first must obtain approval from U.S. and Canadian health regulators for clinical use of the isotopes produced with the new MAPLE HEU targets and NPF process. In order to apply for such regulatory approval, Nordion first must run a sample batch of HEU targets through a MAPLE reactor and the NPF, and then submit the resulting data to regulators. (The same is true for LEU targets, as noted on p. 11 of the submission.) We estimate that obtaining such regulatory approval from health officials will require the same amount of time that Nordion previously has indicated in testimony will be required for the analogous steps with LEU targets, approximately an additional six to nine months. Thus, even with the most optimistic assumption that the test irradiation could commence during the commissioning phase of the MAPLE reactors, Nordion could not begin actual commercial production of isotopes until around the beginning of 2003.
However, by the end of 2002, Nordion is scheduled to have imported some 60 kilograms of HEU targets. Thus, under current plans, Nordion will acquire a stockpile of 60 kilograms of HEU before it even could begin irradiating the targets for isotope production. In light of the fact that Nordion plans to irradiate no more than 20 kilograms of targets annually, there is no justification for it to accumulate such an excessive surplus. Indeed, Nordion itself states that it only requires a maximum of 40 kilograms of targets on hand at any one time. (Even such a smaller surplus requires more justification than Nordion provides in its submission.)
Based on its current plans, Nordion will have acquired this desired stock of 40 kilograms of targets by the end of 2001. Thus, given that Nordion will not start commercial isotope production until 2003, there is no justification for Nordion to import any further HEU targets from the United States in 2002. Indeed, for the Commission to permit exports whose sole purpose is to enable Nordion to build up a surplus of HEU would run directly contrary to longstanding U.S. nonproliferation policy, which discourages accumulation of such surpluses of nuclear weapons material.
Nordions Planned Request to Authorize Additional HEU Exports
The commission originally authorized export of a total of 130.65 kg of HEU, authorizing export of specific amounts in each calendar year of the license. When Nordion failed to export any HEU in 1999, the Commission observed that the authorization for export of 40.2 kg HEU in calendar year 1999 had expired without action. The Commission stated that for the remaining 3 years of the license, the total amount of HEU authorized for export to MAPLE under XSNM03060 was reduced from 130.65 kg to 90.4 kg of HEU subject to the conditions set forth in the license. (SECY-01-0047) In their submission, Nordion officials state that they currently foresee a need to seek amendment of XSNM03060 to extend the term of the license at least two more years and allow the 40 kgs that could not be exported in 1999, to be exported at a later time, 20 kgs in 2004 and 20 kgs in 2005, thus utilizing the entire 130.65 kgsU authorized by the existing license. (p. 6)
We wish to underscore that such a request should take the form of a new license application rather than an amendment to the existing license, because it seeks export of more than the total amount of HEU authorized for export to MAPLE under XSNM03060, in the Commissions own words. More fundamentally, we do not see any legitimate need for Nordion to obtain more HEU than that currently authorized in the license. Indeed, we are skeptical that Nordion even would require all of the HEU currently authorized for export if it were to pursue conversion to LEU expeditiously and in good faith. Our views are based on two fundamental realities: the unexpected, protracted delay in starting up isotope production in the MAPLE reactors using HEU targets; and the fact that ongoing development of LEU targets should not be delayed significantly, if at all, by this delay in commencing irradiation of HEU targets.
As noted above, the earliest that Nordion realistically can commence commercial isotope production in the MAPLE reactors and NPF is 2003. Given that the existing license authorizes export of 90 kgs of HEU targets, and Nordion estimates a maximum usage of 20 kgs annually, the current license already enables isotope production using HEU targets until approximately the end of 2007. Meanwhile, by Nordions own extremely conservative conversion schedule, LEU targets should be ready for use no later than the end of 2006. Accordingly, there is no justification at this time for the Commission even to consider a request from Nordion to authorize additional HEU exports. Indeed, the fact that Nordion officials currently foresee a need to seek amendment of XSNM03060 to obtain additional HEU that only could be irradiated in 2008 and beyond, suggests a disconcerting lack of sincerity in their commitment to convert to LEU targets in accordance with the schedule they have presented to the Commission.
order to satisfy the Commissions statutory responsibility under the Schumer