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February 19, 1999

The Honorable Bill Richardson
Secretary of Energy
Washington, DC 20585

The Honorable Madeleine K. Albright
Secretary of State
Washington, DC 20520

The Honorable William S. Cohen
Secretary of Defense
Washington, DC 20301

Dear Secretaries Richardson, Albright and Cohen,

We write to you about a proposed export of U.S. nuclear weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU). If approved, this export requested by Canadian companies would be the first to violate the letter and spirit of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which contains provisions that restrict the export of HEU. These provisions, commonly known as the Schumer Amendment, were intended to codify the longstanding policy of the United States to phase out remaining international commerce in HEU, by substituting non-weapons-usable, low enriched uranium (LEU). The ultimate aim of this policy, to reduce the risks of diversion or theft of bomb-grade uranium, is more important than ever, as terrorists become more sophisticated and violent.

The proposed Canadian export clearly would violate the Schumer Amendment, as we have documented in a petition pending before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and a follow-up brief, both of which we could provide you upon request. This law permits exports of HEU only in cases where there is an ongoing effort and commitment by both the United States and the proposed recipient to convert to LEU. In other words, HEU exports are permitted only where they are to be temporary, as efforts proceed for eventual conversion to LEU.

The Schumer Amendment has spurred virtually all remaining foreign recipients of U.S. HEU – including operators of nuclear research reactors in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands – to begin efforts towards conversion. These efforts include commissioning feasibility studies and cooperating with the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory, the home of the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program. By contrast, Canada has yet to fulfill its commitments to make a good-faith effort to convert to LEU. Indeed, if Canada’s request for HEU were granted, it actually would impede future conversion to LEU by making such conversion more expensive as well as disruptive to the production of medical isotopes. The proposed export thus would not only violate the Schumer Amendment but undermine its intent.

Canada is the main supplier of medical radioisotopes to U.S. hospitals, and it is important to continue that supply as long as no alternate suppliers are available. However, the proposed export of HEU – intended to start production of isotopes in Canada’s new Maple reactors – is not essential to the continued supply of such isotopes from Canada. For years, the United States has imported isotopes produced in Canada’s NRU research reactor. The NRU reactor is still operating and there is no reason it cannot continue to produce isotopes for U.S. hospitals during an interim period while the new Maple facilities are converted to LEU targets.

Instead, Canada has requested the proposed exports to commence isotope production using HEU targets in two new Maple reactors and their associated processing facility now under construction. Once such production is begun with HEU in the Maple facilities, and the NRU is shut down, Canadian officials have declared that it will be impossible to convert to LEU without disrupting the supply of isotopes to U.S. hospitals. Moreover, once the processing facilities start operation and become radioactive, it will be significantly more expensive to convert them to handle LEU and might even require construction of an entirely new facility at significant expense. Thus, if the United States approves the Canadian request, enabling commencement of HEU use in the Maple reactors, it will be a fateful decision likely to perpetuate HEU commerce for decades to come. The best way to avoid this undesirable outcome is to convert the Maple facilities to LEU targets before their commencing isotope production.

As noted above, this alternative path could preserve the letter and spirit of the Schumer Amendment. Late last year, Canadian officials finally conceded that isotope production in the Maple reactors can be converted from HEU to LEU, a point that U.S. officials long have maintained. The only remaining debate is over how long it will take to qualify and license the LEU targets and make any required modifications to the processing line that purifies the isotopes. U.S. officials at Argonne estimate two years, while the Canadian companies estimate five. In either case, the NRU reactor can continue to produce isotopes in the interim while the Maple facilities are converted. Indeed, the United States last year approved an HEU export to NRU specifically to enable continued isotope production at NRU in case of delay in the start-up of the Maple reactors. Additional exports of HEU to the NRU also would be justified under the Schumer Amendment, if necessary to maintain an uninterrupted supply of isotopes while the LEU targets for the new Maple reactors are being qualified and licensed. Once the LEU process is ready, the Maple reactors could commence isotope production with LEU targets and the NRU reactor could be shut down. At that point, Canadian use of HEU would terminate and no further U.S. exports of HEU to Canada would be required. The intent of the Schumer Amendment vis. Canada would be fulfilled.

We urge you, therefore, to join in Executive Branch views advising the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject Canada’s application for an export of HEU for the Maple reactors. We also urge you to reiterate to Canadian officials the U.S. commitment that scientists at Argonne National Laboratory stand ready to assist in the conversion of the Maple facilities to LEU targets. Canadian officials should be reassured that rejection of this export license in no way reflects negatively on Canadian nonproliferation credentials. Rather, the case is analogous to that of Germany’s proposed FRM-II reactor, in which the United States declined to export HEU fuel – because the facility could have been designed for LEU fuel, which made HEU exports a violation of the Schumer Amendment – and instead offered to assist in converting the reactor to use LEU.

By working cooperatively, the United States and Canada can eliminate bilateral commerce in bomb-grade uranium and thereby reduce risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Moreover, in combination with similar U.S. efforts already underway with Indonesia and Argentina, and ongoing utilization of LEU targets in Australia, this cooperative effort will help to establish an international norm of using LEU targets rather than HEU targets to produce medical isotopes. Such progress would build on the norm already established for use of LEU rather than HEU as fuel in nuclear research reactors, helping to pave the way for elimination of all remaining civilian commerce in nuclear weapons-grade uranium.

Thank you for your consideration of this vital national security matter. In light of the pending application for export of bomb-grade uranium to Canada, we look forward to a timely response.



Alan J. Kuperman
Senior Policy Analyst


Paul L. Leventhal

cc: Senator Charles E. Schumer

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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