Sunday, July 6, 2008

Canada gets dibs on Iraq's nuclear fuel

Despite my misgivings about nuclear power, I do (albeit reluctantly) support its use for peaceful purposes such as electricity production and the manufacture of medical isotopes. However, this story unexpectedly and inexplicably links Canada forever with the war in Iraq. 550 tonnes of "yellow cake," a lower grade of uranium not potent enough to make a nuclear bomb but enough to cause problems if it was detonated, was sold to the Canadian company Cameco. No details on what the price was; but the stuff was shipped in 3500 barrels from Tuwaitha to Baghdad, then flown to Diego Garcia and finally on a US-flagged ship to Montréal -- which shipment made it to port yesterday.

Once processed, the yellow cake will be used in Ontario's nuclear power plants. I fully understand the secrecy involved, and am somewhat comforted that it is out of the hands of terrorists. But there are several points that bother me about this.

First, there was always the risk that the bad word may have gotten out and the shipment may have been a target for a terrorist attack anywhere along the route. This is certainly the case for future shipments; as well as for when and if shipments of our own nuclear waste commence to Yucca Mountain and the abandoned mines in Saskatchewan. No security guarantees exist that would pacify most people.

Second, this sale and shipment sets a very dangerous precedent. We have processed fuel from rogue states before, but that was in limited amounts and was in any case sent to the research facility at Chalk River; and we know the problems they have had and continue to. To process this much fuel for commercial use may send a signal that we're the world's dumping ground for spent and / or unsecured fuel.

Third, even if we're obligated to so do under our treaty obligations, why aren't other countries stepping up? Especially the United States who you'd think would want the fuel to reduce its reliance on Middle East oil.

Fourth, this may be the last of the nuclear fuel Iraq had but it still faces years of clean-up of contaminated facilities. Who pays the bills? Since we're now complicit in the nuclear trade with Iraq, does that mean we're liable for part of the costs in case the reprocessed fuel causes problems for the reactors at Bruce, Pickering and Darlington? Or should it be Iraq since they allegedly caused the problem to begin with? Or would it be Niger where the yellow cake came from in the first place?

And fifth, anyone out there who thinks it's just a coincidence the arrival of this shipment happens on the fifth anniversary of the series of events that led to the betrayal of Valerie Plame -- over the same yellow cake?

One hasn't heard the end of this ... not by any means.

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Lord Kitchener's Own said...

Well, first, this yellow cake DIDN'T come from Niger. I think it's been pretty well established that Saddam wasn't even really trying to get yellow cake from Niger, but I think it's absolutely clear that he never actually DID get any yellow cake from Niger (hence Mr. Wilson's report and the following fiasco with regard to his wife's blown cover).

Second, I'm not sure what you mean when you refer to "treaty obligations" and "other countries stepping up". This uranium wasn't foisted on us, and it's not really even the government ("us") taking it, but a private Canadian company. They WANTED the uranium, and I'd imagine got it at a great price. We're not obligated to take cheap uranium from Iraq that the Americans (and the Iraqis) have a vested interest in securing and getting rid of, we (that is to say Cameco) desired it. In fact, I'd imagine the company involved was probably lucky to get it, and had competition from other potential buyers as well (as you mention, I'd imagine some U.S., and probably French and Russian companies wanted this stuff too).

As for who's paying to clean up what remains of the site in Iraq, I'd imagine it's probably mostly the Americans. As for who'd pay if there's some problem with the processed uranium once it's processed well, I'd imagine that would be Cameco , since they're the one's who are going to process it, but I don't see why we would assume that this Canadian company is going to do a sloppy job, or wouldn't fix things if they did.

I also DO think it's a coincidence that this is happening on the anniversary of the Plame affair, but as noted in the first place, since this uranium ISN'T from Niger, and really has nothing to do with the Plame case, anyone leaking this story to try to make Joe Wilson look bad would have to be pretty confident people weren't going to read the story too carefully, particularly the part that says "U.N. inspectors documented and safeguarded the yellowcake, which had been stored in aging drums and containers since before the 1991 Gulf War. There was no evidence of any yellow cake dating from after 1991". This was U.N. documented and stored yellow cake from BEFORE the invasion of Kuwait that had nothing to do with Plame, Niger, or Saddam's defunct nuclear program (accept in as much that it's documentation and storage showed the program to be defunct).

Now, people who have a problem with nuclear power would have reason to be upset at this acquisition, but those who favour it (or are neutral on nuclear power) ought, I think, to be quite happy that this material is A) safely out of Iraq, and B) going to a Canadian company.

Personally, I read this as a mostly good new story.

BlastFurnace said...

The treaty in question would be the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although using a private company to handle the transaction should be raising alarm bells.

As for the sourcing of the yellow cake ... whether it came in whole or in part from Niger or not is not, I think, the issue although it is clear that it wasn't weapon grade as the Bushies claimed it was. For me the issue is that the US made the mess and they should clean it up.

I think that subcontracting it to Canada is less than flattering although it will provide work for Canadians for some time to come and we could use all the work we can get.

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

I'm just not sure why a private company legally buying yellow cake to process into nuclear fuel should "raise alarm bells" given that this happens every single day. This is what Cameco does. It's their business. Are you suggesting we nationalize nuclear power and take control of any company in the uranium refining business? I guess I just don't understand the concern exactly.

Also, it's true that the yellow cake isn't weapons grade, though I'd also point out that that is what yellow cake is. By definition. There's no such thing as "weapons grade yellow cake", so in that sense no, the Bushies never claimed that Saddam had weapons grade yellow cake, since there's no such thing (Not to overemphasize the point, but saying "weapons grade yellow cake" is pretty meaningless. As the article points out, yellow cake isn't even dangerous enough to make an effective dirty bomb, let alone a nuclear weapon. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of non nuclear substances more toxic than yellow cake, and while yellow cake is certainly toxic, from a "nuclear" standpoint (as in nuclear explosion, or radiation danger) yellow cake is hardly that dangerous at all). The danger of course is that someone would REFINE the yellow cake into something truly dangerous, and it's in that sense that "the Bushies" lied, both in claiming that Saddam was trying to get more, when he wasn't, and that he was still working on refining what he had, when in reality it was all documented by the UN and under storage.

I also don't quite get the argument that the Americans made this mess. It wasn't their yellow cake, it was Saddam's. It was Saddam's mess. Did the Americans make dealing with it more complicated? Arguably so. Still, it wasn't their mess.

Finally, I just don't see this transaction the way you do. You seem to view this as the Americans subcontracting out a "mess" they didn't want to deal with themselves. I don't think that's it at all. I think a Canadian company went in to Iraq and made a bid for a large amount of yellow cake uranium (that they probably would have had to buy elsewhere anyway, and I'd imagine for more money) and they made the successful bid. I'd imagine the companies that DIDN'T get this uranium aren't thanking their stars they lost the yellow cake. They're trying to figure out what it's going to cost them now to get their yellow cake somewhere else (I suppose Niger still has a bunch :-)).

As for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, I'm pretty sure that doesn't apply in the slightest. Canada is an NPT compliant nation with a good track record of UN compliance and Canadian companies are well withing their rights to purchase yellow cake for refinement into nuclear fuel, and in fact 25% or so of the power I'm using to type this is coming from nuclear power plants that are running off uranium that may well have been processed from yellow cake (though some percentage of that no doubt came from uranium mined in Saskatchewan).

Anyway, the point being, if Cameco had bought the yellow cake from Africa and sailed it in to Montreal for transport and processing, we'd have never even heard of this story. Not everything involving Iraq is a conspiracy. Not everything the Americans do is an attempt to have others clean up "their mess" (not every mess in Iraq is the Americans either, frankly). Sometimes the purchase of a natral resource is just the purchase of a natural resource.