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Canada Pressured Over Bomb-Grade Uranium for Medical Use

A U.S. agreement to supply European countries with material used to create cancer-treating isotopes may raise pressure on Canada to phase out the use of bomb-grade uranium for medical purposes.

Belgium, France and the Netherlands promised to stop making medical isotopes from reactors that irradiate bomb-grade uranium by 2015 in exchange for a U.S. pledge to supply nuclear material until then, the countries announced late yesterday at a nuclear-security summit in Seoul. The reactors produce Molybdenum-99, or Moly-99, that hospitals use to diagnose and treat cancer and heart disease.

“This is a very important stride forward and really reduces the chances of this material falling into the wrong hands,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at a press briefing. “We feel it is very important for all countries to recognize this as an important step forward.”

Some 100,000 patients are treated daily worldwide with Moly-99 isotopes. Reactors use highly enriched uranium, also the key ingredient in atomic bombs, to produce isotopes. World leaders attending the summit want nations and companies to invest in new facilities that can make medical isotopes with low-enriched uranium that can’t be used for weapons.

Canada is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of medical isotopes. A Canadian company, Nordion Inc., sells isotopes produced from highly enriched uranium, or HEU, irradiated at a research reactor operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a state-owned company based near Ottawa. AECL triggered a global shortage of isotopes in 2009, when it was forced to shut down the reactor due to a leak.

Reactor Revamp

Canada’s government recently put out a tender seeking advice on how to restructure the AECL division that operates the 55-year-old reactor, which is licensed to operate until 2016.

Nordion signed an agreement in 2010 with a unit of Rosatom Corp., a company controlled by the Russian government, to acquire atomic material needed to make the isotopes until 2020.

Companies are raising nuclear-security concern by not pledging to convert to low-enriched production, said Miles Pomper, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said today his country is committed to eliminating the use of bomb-grade uranium in isotope production “over time.”

Seeking Alternatives

“We will not do it instantly, but we are making investments specifically on alternatives to that kind of isotope production in Canada,” he told reporters in Seoul. “We’ll continue to do so, and we’ll fulfill our commitments.”

Nordion, which exports isotopes worldwide, is closely following the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, said Tamra Benjamin, vice president for public and government relations.

“We are actively monitoring and engaged on various initiatives seeking to develop non-HEU-based technologies for isotope production,” Benjamin wrote today in an e-mailed response to questions. “At present, however, Nordion believes that the premature elimination of access to HEU-based isotopes could have a detrimental effect on tens of thousands of patients around the world.”

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