Eyeing Canada's China Nuclear Deal
Image Credit: Mike Lowell

Eyeing Canada's China Nuclear Deal


A new arrangement for uranium exports from Canada to China raises some interesting questions. The two countries already have a nuclear cooperation agreement that dates back to 1994, so the new deal didn’t receive much international attention. However, it’s noteworthy that this agreement considerably relaxes the accountability rules for China’s use of Canadian uranium.

The new deal relies on general assurances that all Canadian uranium will be used for appropriate civilian purposes, despite the fact that Canada usually requires more detailed accounting for its uranium. Indeed, Canada severely criticized Australia when Canberra made a similar deal with China in 2008. But, it’s a sign of hard pressed economic times that Canada’s nuclear industry could convince the government to relax its accountability rules for China.

Canada’s nuclear cooperation agreement with China is indicative of the fact that the country is adopting a more pragmatic approach to nuclear sales than was possible under its previously “fundamentalist” position on non-proliferation. In fact, it’s clear that the demands of its nuclear industry, as well as the general state of the Canadian economy, have encouraged Ottawa to reach out to more vibrant and promising economies, such as China and India.

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There are plenty of non-proliferation enthusiasts within Canada critical of the recent deal with China, as well as the nuclear cooperation agreement signed in June 2010 between Canada and India. Indeed, India and Canada are rediscovering each other in nuclear terms after a break of three decades.

It should be remembered that the two parted ways with plenty of recriminations in 1974, when India conducted a nuclear test. The move was perceived by Canada as a breach of their deal since the plutonium used in the explosion was from Canada India Research Utility Services, a research reactorthat was meant to be exclusively for peaceful purposes.

However, it’s an often overlooked fact that in the 1960s and ’70s, conduct of peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) was considered an acceptable activity. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency held a series of panel meetings in Vienna from 1970 to discuss the potential industrial and engineering uses of PNEs. India had expressed interest in the use of PNEs at the very first of these meetings. In fact, the United States was also enthusiastic about PNEs, seeing the idea as part of its “swords into plowshares” strategy. (Interestingly, most of the interest in PNEs dissipated after the Indian test, and attention shifted to nuclear proliferation).

Regardless, crying foul, Canada halted work at the second nuclear plant that it was assisting India with. During the ensuing period of estrangement, both mostly approached the nuclear issue from opposite sides. Canada was both unwilling and unable to engage in any constructive nuclear dialogue with India unless India agreed to accept full scope safeguards on its nuclear power program and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. This obviously was anathema to New Delhi, which was unwilling to make any compromises on its indigenous nuclear program and was unwilling to close off the option of developing a nuclear weapon in the face of security concerns arising from Chinese proliferation to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs.

Ironically enough, it was the revelation of the nuclear proliferation network that was being run with such impunity by Pakistan that highlighted the contrast with India’s non-proliferation behavior. This coincided with India’s decade-long rise as a promising economic power following liberalization in 1991.

The need for electricity to power India’s growth, and to manage its economic rise in an environmentally sustainable manner, led to a greater appreciation of the need for India to rapidly expand its nuclear power program. But this would only be possible if India could engage in international nuclear commerce, especially to allow it to access uranium for indigenous nuclear plants and imported reactors for rapid addition of installed nuclear capacity. These were some of the factors that led to the “exceptional” waiver being granted to India from the current non-proliferation requirements of full scope safeguards.

So it’s easy to see why India and a fast-rising China are both seen by countries including Canada as promising markets. The nuclear power plants in these countries require assured supplies of uranium, and Canada’s uranium industry employs 14,000 people who between them produce 18 percent of all global uranium needs.

But there’s a key difference between China and India. Of course, both are nuclear-armed states who run strategic programs that are beyond the purview of safeguards. Both have similar nuclear doctrines of credible minimum deterrence and no first use – attributes that allow both to eschew building large stockpiles of nuclear arsenals. However, China insists on engaging in an illegitimate nuclear cooperation arrangement with Pakistan, one that it failed to secure the necessary approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group for.

So, while Beijing may have stopped fissile material production for its own arsenal, as is widely believed, there’s nothing from its past behavior to suggest that it might not siphon uranium to its nuclear protégé. This should be a matter of grave concern not just for India, but the international community. As a “middle power” of consequence to the non-proliferation and disarmament debate, Canada should apply a more discerning approach to its nuclear commerce. 

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