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CNWC Nuclear News

Canada’s, and the world’s, civilian nuclear supply chain at the crossroads

For the first 60 or so years of Canada’s civilian nuclear industry, the supply chain was relatively simple. Canada has abundant uranium resources. We mine and refine uranium, and make our own nuclear reactor fuel. We used to make our own reactors, which run on natural uranium and heavy water, which we also make ourselves, in Canada. The entire nuclear power supply chain is located within our own borders. In fact, the very reactor design from which the industry grew came out of very real supply chain issues. More on that later.

With OPG’s selection of the GEH BWRX-300 for new build at Darlington, a new and highly interesting supply chain consideration arises. New build now centres on a light water–enriched uranium design, with major components—and fuel—sourced outside of Canada.

Last time we talked about the revolution in the global uranium supply chain brought by Russia’s 2022 full scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia has long been the dominant global supplier of fission product isotopes. It has become the most active and arguably the most successful supplier of light water nuclear power reactors. And it is not only the main supplier of enriched uranium fuel and services to most of the former Warsaw Pact countries as well as a major supplier to European Union nuclear power member countries, but it is also the only commercial supplier of high assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU).

the question arises: what role will [The Nuclear Suppliers Group] play in deciding issues surrounding the new LEU/HALEU market if and when Russia, a major NSG member state, is blocked from that market? In 2006, Canada asked the US for support at NSG for constructing on Canadian soil an enrichment facility. The reply was a hard no. Is there any reason to believe the reply would be any different if the same request were put today, or any time in the foreseeable future?

The World Nuclear Association reports that Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom had expected in 2015 that of the 16 power reactors being built each year by 2020, at least four would be Rosatom VVERs (pressurized light water reactors). That was quite some confidence, given that a year before 2015 the West had begun placing sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine.

Whether or not Rosatom would have maintained the 4 reactors-per-year stride, the conditions for its 2015 confidence disappeared completely as the result of the February full scale 2022 invasion. Whatever nuclear reactor business Rosatom might have gotten prior to that event fell to near zero after. It’s not quite the same with sales of enriched uranium reactor fuel—Europe has had nowhere near the success in weaning off Russian nuclear fuel as it has with Russian hydrocarbons. But things could be moving in that direction.

If Russia becomes truly and permanently locked out of those markets, who replaces it as the world’s predominant nuclear technology and fuel supplier? A US Senate committee took up this question in a public hearing on March 14.

Unmentioned in the commentary about the direction the world uranium fuel market might take is how Russia’s attack on Ukraine will affect the global regime that governs the commercial civilian nuclear fuel cycle. That regime is represented in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The NSG is essentially the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as it applies to civilian energy. It is a cartel, in which only certain privileged states—the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK—hold the right to separate uranium isotopes and conduct other atomically “sensitive” business. All members are required to ensure that in their civilian nuclear dealings they do not enable transfer of “sensitive” methods, materials, or technologies. The NSG was formed in 1974, after India, an NPT non-signatory, exploded its first nuclear device. Canada had in the 1960s transferred a research reactor which it turned out India had used to manufacture the explosive.

The NSG decides matters by consensus. Five of its NPT weapons-state members—the US, UK, and France on one side, Russia and China on the other—are at bitter loggerheads over Russia’s Ukraine aggression. These are the five most important members of the entire cartel. It is unknown at this time what is the nature of Russia’s dealings with Iran regarding Iran’s desire to develop nuclear weapons and Russia’s expertise on that matter.

But we do know that Iran has provided Russia with attack drones that Russia is using to bomb Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. We also know that Pakistan and North Korea developed nuclear weapons with China’s help, and that India did with Russia’s help. North Korea is also known to have supplied Russia with materiel for its Ukraine invasion.

It is natural to wonder what quid pro quos were the bases of these dealings.

In short, the post–World War II anti-proliferation regime, which in reality fell apart long ago, is on the verge of really coming apart. Notwithstanding the hyper-vigilance toward the civilian nuclear sector shown by the IAEA and NSG, weapons proliferation has always been a high level political decision made with national security and/or prestige uppermost in mind. No country has ever “broken out” of a civilian energy program into a military one. There are good reasons for that.

In light of this, the question arises: what role will NSG play in deciding issues surrounding the new LEU/HALEU market if and when Russia, a major NSG member state, is blocked from that market? In 2006, Canada asked the US for support at NSG for constructing on Canadian soil an enrichment facility. The reply was a hard no. Is there any reason to believe the reply would be any different if the same request were put today, or any time in the foreseeable future? Russia’s invasion is a watershed moment in world history. Big things happen in watersheds.

But for now the status quo holds. If the US didn’t block us from enriching, Russia surely would. This means that until NSG is reformed, or the tensions between its major members are resolved, OPG’s supply chain for critical components and fuel for the BWRX-300 would be entirely offshore, likely entirely in the US.

That puts Canada back at Square One, exactly where we were in the late 1950s when US President Eisenhower announced Atoms for Peace. We should remember today that that program, while it sounded benign and humanitarian, was really a hardball commercial strategy to cement a global US monopoly in civilian nuclear technology and fuel.

The response in Canada to that US strategy was utterly brilliant, both technologically and diplomatically. It was embodied in the CANDU reactor, jointly developed by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (by far the most commercially successful corporate spinoff from the federal National Research Council) and Ontario Hydro, OPG’s progenitor. American-style nuclear power reactors centre on a large forged steel pressure vessel. They run on enriched uranium and light water. There were then and are today no forgers in Canada capable of manufacturing pressure vessels. Canada is blocked by international consensus from possessing uranium isotope separation capability.

But Canada has abundant natural uranium resources. We are allowed to separate hydrogen isotopes, and we know how to do it. There is no industrial constraint on producing metal alloy tubes 50 centimetres long and 10 cm in diameter, the dimensions of CANDU fuel rods. And there is no law against positioning nuclear fuel horizontally inside a reactor instead of vertically.

Isn’t it nice to know that if and when we get serious about electrification and energy security in a dangerous and uncertain world, we still have this option.

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