I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
This line from Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire may well sum up Canada’s position a few years after new reactors requiring enriched uranium, and that’s all of the designs being considered, are built with no Canadian enrichment plant to supply them.
Uranium enrichment could be strategically important for Canada in terms of energy self-sufficiency and sovereignty. At one extreme some would argue that for this reason Canada should not build nuclear reactors that use enriched uranium unless it has its own enrichment plant pointing out that Canada is not reliant on other states for its energy supply now, and should not be in future. On the other hand, Canada is dependent on other countries for vital materials and finished goods of many kinds and enriched uranium would simply be another.
Some articles have ready appeared in the press saying that the Canadian government has already made overtures to the other members of NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to negotiate permission for an enrichment plant. The NSG claims to look after the Non-Proliferation Treaty but by granting permission to open nuclear trade with India, it seems its main interest has shifted to creating commercial opportunities for its members rather than preventing weapons proliferation. If that’s the case then it might be difficult for Canada to gain approval from other members of the NSG to compete against them in the profitable enrichment business. No doubt commercial objections to Canadian enrichment would emerge wrapped in the now very tattered flag of non-proliferation.
For the two foreign competitors for the Ontario reactors, AREVA and Westinghouse, a serious issue is to create spending in Canada to offset the higher percentage of foreign content in their products compared to AECL. The Saskatchewan government has not only been toying with the idea of purchasing reactors but has also expressed interest in adding value to its uranium mining industry. Therefore, both Saskatchewan and Ontario (if it could ever get its act together) might have leverage in their negotiations with foreign reactor suppliers to include an offsetting enrichment plant as part of a reactor purchase deal. This would work particularly well for AREVA since they are already constructing a new enrichment plant in the US with technology licensed from Urenco and they have also been an important player in Canadian uranium mining for many years.
Of course, if the ACR-1000 is selected as part of the new build mix it would have more domestic content than its competitors but then we might end up in a situation where we were short of heavy water on top of having no domestic source for enriched uranium.
In my opinion enrichment should be a purely commercial undertaking or at most a private-public partnership. Personally I’d like to see enrichment as value-added to our uranium exports that stays in Canada but this is a business decision that has to be made by the uranium industry.