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Wednesday, June 10, 1998

CONTACT: Steven Dolley



Washington---The Nuclear Control Institute today reacted with "guarded optimism" to a recent decision by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow two exports of bomb-grade uranium to Canada after securing Canadian cooperation to develop a safer alternative for production of radioisotopes in Canadian reactors.

Last December, NCI petitioned NRC to deny two export licenses for 30 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) because the Canadian government and a commercial producer of radioisotopes had refused to cooperate with U.S. efforts to actively develop alternative, non-weapons-usable uranium "targets" for such production, as required by U.S. non-proliferation law.

On June 5, the NRC informed NCI it had granted the export licenses only after receiving information from the Executive Branch that the required Canadian cooperation had been obtained in an April 9 meeting and subsequent consultations between U.S. and Canadian officials.

"While the dialogue and exchanges toward this effort may be in the early stages," the NRC found, "we believe that the U.S. and Canadian principals are acting in good faith toward concluding a formal agreement to complete the LEU [low-enriched uranium] target development linked to the Canadian reactors."

The Commission also found that "NCI has, in effect, obtained the end result---Canadian cooperation permitting an active LEU target development program for the Canadian reactors---that it appears ultimately to be seeking. We wish to point out that our review of these export applications was significantly aided by NCI's participation.... Indeed, our decision regarding the consistency of the proposed exports with the statutory criteria was made only after requesting additional information---prompted in large part by the concerns highlighted by NCI---from the Executive Branch."

Paul Leventhal, NCI president, said: "I am gratified by the Commission's acknowledgement of NCI's constructive role in this important licensing case, and I express guarded optimism that NRC approval of the exports will have the desired result. However, NCI would have preferred that the Commission adopt the position of Commissioner Nils Diaz, who wanted to delay approval until the Executive Branch provided a firm schedule worked out with the Canadians for development of the LEU targets."

Under the 1992 Schumer Amendment to the non-proliferation provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the U.S. can export highly enriched uranium only to reactors for which alternative low-enriched uranium fuel and targets are not yet available---and then only (1) if the country involved agrees to convert these reactors when the alternative becomes available, and (2) if the alternative is being actively developed specifically for these reactors.

NCI moved to block NRC approval of the HEU exports to Canada after learning that although Canada had pledged in principle to use LEU targets when available for production of molybdenum (the most commonly used radiopharmaceutical), Canada was denying the information needed by the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory to develop the targets specifically for Canada's new MAPLE reactors. Over the past 20 years, Argonne has been developing LEU targets and fuel for U.S. and foreign reactors participating in the international Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program.

Leventhal noted that the NRC, in explaining its decision, had stated that "...approval of the exports conditioned on Canadian assurances to use LEU targets once they are developed and the existence of an active program to develop such LEU targets for the Canadian reactors furthers, rather than undermines, the objective reflected in the Schumer Amendment and various U.S. policy initiatives to reduce the world commerce in bomb-grade nuclear material."

Leventhal said: "We take this as a clear signal that the NRC will weigh carefully any future license application for an HEU export to Canada against the record at that time of Canadian cooperation to develop the alternative LEU targets. We assume these will be the last of the HEU exports to Canada. In any event, we intend to monitor the LEU target development program closely. Absent continued Canadian cooperation and progress toward developing an LEU target for the MAPLE reactors, we will strongly oppose any future exports."

Leventhal also observed that Canada's reluctance to date to cooperate with Argonne's LEU-target development efforts was prompted largely by the concerns of the Canadian commercial producer, MDL Nordion, that it would be placed at a competitive disadvantage by an American company, Mallinckrodt Medical Inc., which produces molybdenum with HEU targets in a reactor operated by the European Union in Petten, the Netherlands.

"Mallinckrodt has effectively gone off-shore and escaped the Schumer Amendment by using a European reactor where U.S. law does not apply because Britain supplies the HEU with no strings attached," Leventhal said. "Therefore, Mallinckrodt can operate without bearing the additional costs of conversion."

Leventhal also noted that Great Britain supplies HEU to the Petten reactor for fuel as well as targets, even though alternative LEU fuel is now available that Petten refuses to use in violation of the international norm. "The U.S. State Department is well aware of the uneven playing field, but it refuses to press the UK and the EU to play by the RERTR rules of the game, under which everyone bears the additional costs of conversion in the global interest of ending commerce in bomb-grade uranium," he said.


Note: The NRC's decision and NCI's petition and deposition can be downloaded from http://www.nci.org/heu.htm

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