Forty-five kilograms of bomb-grade uranium are stockpiled at Chalk River, awaiting the long-delayed startup of two nuclear reactors
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Ottawa's MDS Nordion is expected to come under scrutiny today when international arms control, security and nuclear experts meet in Norway to consider tougher measures to keep bomb-grade uranium from terrorists and rogue nations.
As the world's leading producer of medical isotopes, Nordion, and by extension, Canada, are weathering mounting criticism over the use and stockpiling of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the United States for isotope production at the federal Chalk River nuclear laboratories, two hours northwest of Ottawa.
Non-proliferation advocates fear terrorists could strike and steal the material to build a weapon of mass destruction or carry out an act of radiological sabotage at the Upper Ottawa Valley site.
Nordion and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns and operates the facility, dismiss the notion as improbable.
Still, in the most stinging rebuke yet, a recent cover story in the respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists condemned Nordion for putting profits before U.S. national security by continuing to rely on HEU. Critics argue Nordion and AECL must convert their isotope production process to use far less dangerous low-enriched uranium (LEU).
An estimated 45 kilograms of HEU, enough to build at least one nuclear bomb, are believed to be stored at Chalk River -- no HEU is kept at Nordion's March Road plant in Kanata -- awaiting the commercial startup of two isotope-producing nuclear reactors intended to maintain Canada's dominance in the $3-billion global molecular imaging and radiotherapeutics market.
The Maple 1 and 2 reactors, however, are seven years behind schedule and a projected
$350 million over budget.
Meanwhile, Nordion and AECL are seeking permission from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to extend the operating life of the 49-year-old National Research Universal (NRU) reactor there to continue making, among other things, the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99).
When injected into the body, isotopes emit harmless amounts of radiation that can be traced by special equipment and quickly reveal disease and illnesses. U.S. physicians alone use them at least 50,000 times daily and an estimated 15 million to 20 million nuclear medicine procedures are performed annually. That number is expected to soar as the populations of developed nations age.
Nordion supplies 60 per cent of the North American medical isotope market -- the U.S. has no domestic producers -- and about half of the global market.
As Mo-99 decays, it produces another isotope, metastable technetium-99 (Tc-99m), which doctors use to detect anomalies in the heart, brain, thyroid, lungs, liver, gall bladder, kidneys and skeleton, as well as in blood and for tumours.
Tc-99m is the most important and widely used nuclear tracer today, accounting for about 80 per cent of all nuclear medicine procedures.
Nordion says the lengthy (and costly) process of converting to LEU now could jeopardize the security of that supply.
But with the MAPLE reactors' commercial production startup at least two years off as nuclear engineers struggle to get them working properly, non-proliferation experts believe the HEU stockpile reserved for the MAPLEs is a tempting target for terrorists. The concern is not unique to Nordion and Canada or limited to the HEU stockpile at Chalk River.
An estimated 20 tonnes of "civilian" HEU is stored around the world, primarily to fuel more than 100 research reactors in dozens of countries, some with questionable security. Others, like Nordion, use HEU as "target" material in a reactor's core to produce isotopes. This weekend's Oslo conference is the latest in a long-running international effort led by the U.S. to reduce and eventually eliminate civilian HEU commerce.
From a global perspective, "we understand those concerns and frankly, we agree with them," says Grant Malkoske, Nordion's vice-president for technology.
But not when it comes to Nordion and Canada. Stringent national, U.S. and international regulations and safeguards for the transport, security and use of HEU minimize the likelihood the "isotope-grade" uranium, as Nordion prefers to call it, from falling into the wrong hands, he says.
Nordion's critics "are coming from the premise that any HEU is bad, that there is a need for managing the HEU supplies down ... and we understand that. I understand where in the broad global perspective it creates some concerns ... but I don't think it's an issue in Canada."
HEU critics say that position, which is supported by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, is untenable in an age when the main barrier between terrorists and a nuclear catastrophe is the difficulty obtaining HEU (or the other essential bomb-making ingredient, plutonium).
"The issue really is, will Canada demonstrate leadership and put their money where their mouth is?" says Ed Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"They boast about their non-proliferation credentials, but they still have this Cold War-era macho attitude that, 'Well, why shouldn't we be allowed to have HEU, we're good guys.' That's just a Stone Age attitude and it's really holding things back."
Alan Kuperman, author of the Bulletin article and a senior policy analyst for the watchdog U.S. Nuclear Control Institute, the leading voice against Nordion's use of HEU, is attending the Oslo conference and expects Nordion will come under "considerable scrutiny." (AECL and federal government officials are expected to attend too.)
"Nordion could eliminate the terrorist threat by converting to LEU, but is refusing to do so, (and) Canada, which claims leadership on non-proliferation, is trailing far behind the efforts of Australia, Argentina and even Indonesia (and) undermining the international norm of phasing out civilian commerce in bomb-grade uranium," he says.
In his high-profile Bulletin expose, Mr. Kuperman blasts Nordion for its part in orchestrating a fierce $2-million Washington lobby campaign that resulted in the U.S. Congress scrapping a landmark non-proliferation policy. Mr. Kuperman was U.S. congressman Charles Schumer's legislative director when the "Schumer Amendment" was enacted in 1992.
It placed strict conditions and controls on foreign isotope producers that use U.S. HEU -- Nordion is currently the only one -- including banning shipments to recipients that didn't agree to gradually convert to the use of LEU, which is unsuitable for bomb-making.
Nordion, backed by a Canadian diplomatic note to the U.S., pledged to investigate the feasibility of converting to LEU. But it found what it says were considerable technological difficulties and cost implications. Those hurdles, it argued before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, could interrupt its supply of isotopes to the U.S.
Faced with two unpalatable options -- a costly and technically challenging conversion to LEU (on top of the existing technical problems with the MAPLEs) or having the U.S. cut off its crucial HEU shipments -- Nordion and its industry partners set out to topple what they viewed as the unreasonable Schumer Amendment.
Beginning in 2003, the U.S.-based Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals, Inc. (CORAR) -- Nordion's Mr. Malkoske heads its committee on isotope supply -- hired a well-connected Washington lobby firm, the Alpine Group, to sway the U.S. Congress to relax the Schumer Amendment.
"The real thrust here is what CORAR saw was a need for the manufacturing industry association to do something to ensure isotope supply, they were concerned about this," says Mr. Malkoske. "And so how do you go about doing that? Well, one way was to try and look at a legislative initiative to facilitate that and that's where the Alpine Group got brought into that."
Congressmen were warned the supply of medical isotopes to the U.S. could be interrupted if Nordion and other major foreign manufacturers were forced to make the switch to LEU.
The Alpine Group's main energy lobbyists contributed more than $25,000 to members of congressional energy committees, according tabulations by The Union of Concerned Scientists of data from the U.S. Center for Responsive Politics.
The Washington Post reports that nuclear medicine trade groups donated tens of thousands more and drummed up support from doctors.
Nordion in particular was singled out by Mr. Kuperman for the use of "misleading scare tactics and cold cash" to turn the political tide in the industry's favour, a charge Nordion flatly dismisses.
"Really, this is about making sure patient needs are met," says Mr. Malkoske. "It is about making sure that isotope supply assurance is being achieved."
Last July, an obscure bit of legislation known as the Burr Amendment was tucked into a new 1,724-page U.S. energy bill. It essentially overturned the Schumer Amendment by allowing continued exports of U.S. HEU to Canada, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, though only Nordion is currently using U.S. HEU for isotope production targets.
What's more, recipients do not have to purse LEU conversion as a condition of their export licence. And conversion to LEU isotope production does not have to occur if it increases production costs by more than 10 per cent. Nordion and AECL will not discuss potential conversion costs.
(The U.S trade magazine Nuclear Fuels reports it could cost $90 million, primarily to retrofit a processing facility. Isotope production with LEU requires five times more uranium, requiring the handling of more radioactive waste, as well as extra long-term storage capabilities.)
The Senate rejected an earlier version of the Burr Amendment after Democratic and Republican critics warned it would accelerate the worldwide proliferation of nuclear materials. A congressional committee later agreed to include it in the final bill.
"It really is amazing," Mr. Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said after the amendment became law. "To get something as outrageous as this, that's skillful lobbying."
Congressman Edward Markey put it another way: "To save one Canadian company some money, we're willing to blow a hole in our non-proliferation policies."
Nordion (and AECL) have a different perspective.
The Burr Amendment, says Mr. Malkoske, was "a reasoned approached to the issue and, frankly, a recognition that what industry needed was some time to figure out a solution (to LEU conversion) rather than than having (Schumer) forcing you all the time to come up with developing technology where you couldn't find a solution."
The new legislation, he says, removes the "threat that if you don't have a continual (LEU conversion) program going you're going to get cut off on HEU and therefore no isotopes to the industry."
The U.S. still has the authority at any time to cut off the HEU exports if it thinks there's a national security issue, he says.
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"They have that control. It hasn't gone away."
Nordion and AECL insist they are committed to switching to LEU targets -- someday.
But they say the technical know-how, equipment changes and regulatory approvals required will take several years.
"What I have to ask them is to bear with us, to be patient," says Mr. Malkoske. "We have to prove our words by demonstration of activity. I think it will take a little bit of time for us, in concert with AECL, to find the path forward."
Experts at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory as well as Princeton University say conversion from HEU to LEU targets is feasible, if not prudent.
"Moly-99 can be made from low-enriched uranium. I think it's a scare tactic to argue that pressing the producers to convert threatens the medical isotopes radiopharmaceutical supply," says Frank von Hippel, co-director of Princeton's program on science and global security, and a presenter at the Oslo conference. "It's a false choice to say you've got to have one or the other.
"If you don't need it and it's dangerous, even if the dangers have been minimized to the extent possible, you shouldn't do it. The cost of these initiatives would be trivial in comparison to the potential consequences of a theft of some HEU."
Australia and Argentina use LEU targets to make limited amounts of medical isotopes for their small markets. Argentina was the first in 2002. And "after four years of continued production it is concluded that the feasibility of Mo-99 production from LEU targets is beyond any technical doubt," says a paper to be delivered in Oslo by Alberto Manzini of Argentina's National Commission of Atomic Energy.
Even so, none of the Nordion's three major competitors, in Europe and South Africa, have converted to LEU either. Critics suspect they won't until market leader Nordion leads the way.
Natural uranium found in the Earth's crust consists almost entirely of an atom called U-238. About 0.7 per cent is a related atom, or isotope, called U-235. Its nucleus can release energy by splitting into smaller fragments, which then hit and split other U-235 atoms, and so on. Enriching uranium means ensuring there is enough U-235 to maintain that chain reaction.
Low-enriched uranium is considered anything with less than 20 per cent U-235. Uranium enriched to three to five per cent, for example, is used to fuel reactors that generate electricity.
When the U-235 component is enriched to 90 per cent or more and the atoms are fissioned in the controlled conditions of a nuclear reactor, some important medical isotopes -- namely Mo-99 -- are created.
(If the fission chain reaction is designed to run wild, tremendous energy is released in the form of heat -- a nuclear explosion.)
The Mo-99 and other isotopes are separated from the irradiated HEU in hot cells at Chalk River and shipped to Nordion's state-of-the-art plant in Kanata. They are sterilized, refined and shipped to hospitals and drug companies around the world. The Mo-99/Tc-99m is placed inside special containers, called "generators," which hospital staff, for example, use to "milk" off the Tc-99m as needed.
The HEU that starts the process is quietly shipped to Chalk River aboard heavily fortified U.S. Department of Energy trucks. It is enriched to 93.3 per cent. Twenty-five to 50 kilograms is enough to make a simple nuclear bomb. The weapon that destroyed Hiroshima was built with about 60 kilograms of 80-per-cent enriched uranium.
Security at the 10,000-acre Chalk River site starts seven kilometres from the main research compound on the Ottawa River shoreline. Security guards and armed members of Chalk River's own paramilitary "Nuclear Response Force" stop and search visiting vehicles' contents, even undercarriages, at a main gate.
Visitors need pre-approved permission to get even this far, including random police checks and occasional vetting by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the nuclear safety commission ordered major Canadian nuclear facilities, including Chalk River, to beef up security. Before, practically anyone could drive to within a few hundred metres of the reactors. Now, even public guided tours are forbidden and cameras are outlawed.
The site is guarded by an undisclosed number of armed Nuclear Response Force guards manning a series of "defensive rings" that become increasingly fortified with "delay features" moving toward the 100-acre main compound.
At the entrance to the compound's "protected area," hydraulic rising bollards are installed to stop vehicles from ramming their way in.
Everyone working inside the protected area, including temporary contractors, undergo criminal record checks. And at work each day, their identities must be be verified twice, first with programmable access cards and then biometric palm scanners, before they are allowed to enter.
And no one, including senior executives, get in -- or out -- without being electronically scanned for weapons, explosives and radiation. The same goes for packages.
The most heavily fortified zone, the "material access area", is where the NRU's LEU fuel, HEU and nuclear waste is stored. The airspace over the entire site is restricted. To the immediate east sits CFB Petawawa and 4,700 soldiers. And the elite JTF2 military commando force is stationed a short helicopter ride away in Ottawa.
"If I was a terrorist I would pick a different target. This is not a site you want to come knocking on the door at," says Brad Perrin, AECL's security chief at Chalk River. "There are many places globally that would be a much softer target than you will find here."
Alan Hawryluk, AECL's vice-president of corporate affairs, believes the terrorist threat to Chalk River is overblown, given all the physical defences and regulatory measures.
It's "more of an academic discussion than something that's a practical issue from our perspective," he says.
Nordion says a significant factor for its delay in converting to LEU targets is the technological and financial nightmare of getting its two AECL-built MAPLE reactors to work properly.
Planning for the MAPLEs -- the Multipurpose Applied Physics Lattice Experiment -- and adjacent isotope processing facility began in the mid-'90s and was to cost $140 million. MAPLE 1 was supposed to start production in 1999, with MAPLE 2, the backup, to start up in 2000. The aging NRU research reactor would then be shut down. (All three are designed to run on LEU fuel.)
But years of technical problems have led to spiraling costs, threatening Nordion's bottom line and that of its parent, MDS Inc., the giant Toronto-based health care company.
In February, in a mediated settlement, AECL assumed responsibility for completing and commissioning the troubled reactors as well as ownership of the project. Nordion, which has spent about $345 million on the project since 1995, is no longer responsible for the estimated $150 million more that still has to be spent.
AECL also will pay $25 million to Nordion and get a 40-year deal to supply Nordion with isotope materials produced by MAPLE 1 and 2, now expected to be in commercial operation in October 2008 and October 2009, respectively. It also gets $53 million in inventory from Nordion.
But the Crown corporation's takeover of the project is raising questions about the federal government's commitment to non-proliferation.
"The decision about whether to convert from HEU to LEU is now a Canadian government decision and no longer a commercial decision. It's a matter of national policy," says Mr. Kuperman. "Is the Canadian government, as matter of national policy, going to continue to unnecessarily sustain commerce in bomb-grade uranium? Does the Canadian government feel it's justified to use bomb-grade uranium when it's not necessary? Is that the message Canada wants to send to the rest of the world?"
In April, seven years after MAPLE 1 was to be producing isotopes, the nuclear safety commission agreed it could be run at low power so experts can solve what they hope is one last, but vexing, problem.
The reactor was designed to have a negative "power coefficient of reactivity," or PCR. In other words, the reactivity in the core decreases as the reactor power increases.
But for some reason no one yet understands, MAPLE 1 has a small positive PCR, which causes the reactivity to increase as the power increases. The discrepancy is important. The safety analysis for the reactor -- predicting its behaviour under postulated events to demonstrate that safety margins are adequate -- assumes it has negative PCR.
AECL spokesman Dale Coffin says even with the positive PCR, the reactor is safe to operate. Still, it is unlikely the nuclear safety commission will allow it to operate at full, isotope-producing power until the problem is fixed.
Meanwhile, the operating licence for the old NRU reactor -- the sole source for Nordion's Mo-99 production -- expires in July. AECL has applied for a licence extension until November 2011. (Design differences prevent the MAPLEs' HEU from being processed at the NRU's Mo-99 processing facility and vice versa.)
If, as seems likely, the extension is granted, Mr. Lyman says AECL should postpone the startup of MAPLE 1 and use the five-year NRU extension to retrofit the MAPLEs' processing facility to handle the increased waste from LEU targets.
Nordion "obviously had a financial incentive not to try to increase their costs any more than they needed to, so any work toward conversion was something they regarded as anathema," he says.
But AECL "presumably has the Canadian government's backing and commitments that they will bring this project to completion no matter what it costs, so presumably this provides a new opportunity (for Canada), which likes to present itself as a good non-proliferation player, to do what it takes to convert the facilities without the financial pressure that a private company is under, like Nordion. It provides ample opportunity to make the investment in conversion without worrying about the impact on the price or the availability of isotopes.
"There's definite opportunity now if Canada wants to utilize it to show leadership on this issue."
New research by Princeton's Mr. von Hippel suggests other Mo-99-producing reactors around the world could, under certain circumstances, make 100 per cent of the global supply if there was no NRU production and the MAPLE project was delayed to allow AECL and Nordion to retrofit the waste processing facility to handle LEU.
"There is a capacity, but the other reactors have other (nuclear research) priorities, so it's very much an issue of schedule," he says. "They basically would have to change their priorities if they really had to pick up that slack."
Given the international co-operation and planning required, that seems unlikely.
AECL, says Mr. Hawryluk, is sticking with its original plan: Concentrate on completing the MAPLEs, then pursue LEU conversion "in a manner such that supply would be maintained for the patient. It's a question of sequencing in order to ensure the supply is there for the patients in the end."
Mr. Malkoske knows Nordion cannot continue to bank on an endless supply of U.S. HEU.
Even the Burr Amendment requires that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences report by 2010 on the feasibility of producing isotopes without HEU; that the U.S. energy secretary then report if any companies will supply the U.S. market with HEU-free isotopes; and, if not, the secretary must investigate options for U.S. isotope production with LEU, perhaps at one of the many research reactors at U.S. universities.
The writing, it seems, is on the wall for HEU-isotope production. But the question remains, what is the risk in the meantime of continuing to rely on HEU?
It's also a question of Nordion's long-range business strategy. "The supply of HEU is very much predicated on perceptions and realities around security, around proliferation, around the geopolitical situation that is there at that point in time," says Mr. Malkoske.
"The question that I always struggle with is, what will the geopolitical situation be like three, five, 10 years from now, and do we want to keep on struggling with this issue around enriched uranium?
"To stand aside from that and think that the world will be OK is not a good thing to do."
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HEU: Highly enriched uranium. Contains higher concentrations of uranium-235 and can be used to produce nuclear weapons.
LEU: Low-enriched uranium. Contains lesser concentrations of uranium-235 and is generally used in power reactors.
U-235: A uranium isotope that can be used to produce either the energy for nuclear power or the explosion of nuclear weapons.
Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99): An isotope that is injected into the body and used to trace disease and illness.
Metastable technetium-99 (Tc-99m): An isotope that is produced by the decay of Mo-99 and is used by doctors to find anomalies in various organs.
MAPLE: Multipurpose Applied Physics Lattice Experiment: New reactor technology developed by AECL and MDS Nordion.
NRU: National Research Universal
AECL: Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
Ran with fact box "A Glossary", which has been appended to
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