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U.S. deal with europeans limits risk of illicit nuclear bombs

But Russia and Canada remain outliers who can undermine it

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In Seoul last week President Obama announced a major new deal with Belgium, France and the Netherlands to reduce the amount of highly-enriched uranium used to create medical isotopes. Under the new deal, the three countries will soon start making isotopes only from low-enriched uranium — the much safer nuclear material that isn’t useful for terrorists or rogue nations looking for a quick way to damage a city by exploding a dangerous bomb.

In theory, the agreement will make the world a safer place. This assumes, of course, that the gains made in Seoul aren’t undercut by cheaper HEU-produced isotopes due to a joint Russian-Canadian agreement. Neither of those countries has agreed to the shift embraced by the Europeans.

Some isotopes are used in are scans for life-threatening conditions. About 50 percent of the scans are related to cardiac disease and 20 percent relate to cancer. When there have been isotope shortages, often caused by interference in the supply chain that travels the globe, doctors have shown a reluctance to perform tests or surgeries that might otherwise be routine.

Right now, America provides isotope producers with much of the HEU — a key component of a nuclear weapon — that they need to make the diagnostic tools used in numerous medical procedures around the globe. Nonproliferation experts have long pushed the major isotope generating facilities (located in South Africa, Australia, Canada, France, Belgium and the Netherlands) to use LEU — which is not suitable for nuclear bombs — instead. They argue that the technology is there for LEU-developed isotopes, and say that by limiting the movement of HEU around the globe they are minimizing the security risk it represents.

The challenge is that LEU is more expensive to use for isotopes. It requires facilities to buy new technology, train people differently, and there is less isotope yield from an LEU target than an HEU one. Essentially, companies get less bang for their buck.

Despite this extra cost, there has been some movement towards using LEU. The South African plant, for example, already produces isotopes using the less dangerous material. A driving force behind the LEU switch has been the U.S., which for years has used the fact it is the HEU supplier for these facilities as a cudgel. If you don’t begin moving to LEU, says America, we’ll simply cut off your HEU supply, and you’ll have to close up shop.

That’s where Russia comes in. In 2010, the Canadian firm Nordion signed a ten year agreement with a Russian company that supplies HEU for isotopes. With a new supplier of the cheaper material, the U.S. no longer has a stranglehold on the supply these companies need, and suddenly loses the stick used to beat companies into making the switch. At a time when there seems to be real progress in the global community towards switching to LEU, the deal threatens to undercut the market with cheaper, HEU isotopes.

So what can be done?

Alan J. Kuperman, an expert who heads the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, told the Center that the Seoul agreement is “a great accomplishment.” But he warns that without unless Congress intercedes, the Canadian-Russian deal could undo the gains the nonproliferation committee has achieved.

There is a bill to encourage the use of LEU sitting in Congress right now, but as reported by the Center in January, Kuperman and other experts have raised concerns that it does not contain “preferential procurement” language allowing U.S. purchases only from companies that go along.

That’s a loophole Kuperman and others think needs to be fixed. If Congress agreed, it would essentially force the Canadian producer to follow the rest of the world in switching to LEU, or lose out on the U.S. market entirely. The U.S. consumes around sixty percent the world’s supply of isotopes from Molybdenum-99 each year — around 16 million procedures. Without that language, buyers within the U.S. are free to choose between the cheaper HEU and more costly LEU produced isotopes. 

“Preferential procurement would be very helpful,” says Miles Pomper, a Senior Research Associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It would help if the Canadians were just reasonable and the Russians were reasonable, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

But despite the concerns about the Russians and Canadians, Pomper sees the Seoul deal as a step in the right direction. “It’s a good deal. The big picture is, leaving aside details, this is a real step forward by the Europeans. It’ll have an impact.”

“They’re doing the right thing,” he said.