Commentary from Colin Robertson

Why this week’s nuclear summit is an opportunity for Trudeau

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
March 30, 2016

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Belgium and Pakistan, this five-minute video narrated by former U.S. secretary of defence William Perry should be required viewing for the world leaders gathering this week for President Barack Obama’s nuclear security summit.

The video describes the delivery, detonation and grim aftermath of a nuclear bomb set off in Washington, D.C. The central message is that a nuclear incident – whether through accident or design – is a “nightmare scenario” worth considering.

Mr. Perry, along with fellow public servants George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, created the Nuclear Security Project in 2007 after writing about the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Their ongoing work through the Nuclear Threat Initiative sets the context for this week’s summit.

For Canada, once the world’s biggest producer of uranium, there is an important role to play in helping to secure the materials needed to make a nuclear bomb.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama set out his ambitious agenda for reducing the risk of nuclear weapons. During a speech in Prague, he boldy declared his goal of “a world without nuclear weapons,” and promised to press for congressional ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to negotiate a new arms-reduction treaty with Russia.

Progress has been modest. An arms-reduction treaty with Russia took effect in 2011; sanctions continue to be applied against North Korea over its nuclear and missile-testing programs; a dozen countries, including Ukraine, no longer have weapons-usable nuclear materials; and in 2015, after long negotiation, an Iranian nuclear deal was negotiated.

But challenges and threats remain. The U.S. Congress has yet to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin has mused about using tactical nuclear weapons and the Russians have cut off most security co-operation with the United States. And, perhaps most important, a series of nuclear summits aimed at securing, within four years, all vulnerable nuclear materials has come up short.

With this context in mind, a comprehensive agreement covering all nuclear materials should be the leaders’ goal this week. This means the global logging, tracking, managing and securing and eventual disposal of all fissile nuclear material.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who described nuclear terrorism on Tuesday as “one of the gravest threats to international security,” there is a leadership opportunity.

For many years, Canada was the top uranium producer, but it’s now Kazakhstan. Together with Australia, the three nations account for more than two-thirds of global production. What if the three agreed to become permanent stewards of used uranium products?

They would permanently “own” their uranium and ensure that its waste, including radioactive and fissible material, was properly disposed of, perhaps in mines no longer in production. While this doesn’t solve the problem of existing nuclear waste, it would control most new supply.

The International Atomic Energy Agency would provide on-site accounting oversight and supervise the transportation of all uranium. Rates would reflect risks to make it commercially and politically viable.

Given their secure geography, Canada and Australia would have to take the lead in long-term global disposal, but this requires leadership and persuasion.

Saskatchewan is home to Canada’s uranium mines and the industry is one of the largest employers of indigenous people. People in Saskatchewan strongly support their industry. They recognize the value of nuclear medicine research, but they oppose nuclear waste storage. They will need to be convinced about the safety, security and economic returns of long-term stewardship.

Nuclear energy, which emits no carbon, is also a key piece of the solution to climate-change mitigation. China is betting heavily on nuclear energy in its migration from coal. France derives about 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy. Nuclear power supplies 50 per cent of Ontario’s electricity.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. We have to do a better job of handling its waste and curbing nuclear proliferation. As both a producer and user, Canada can take the lead in the control and containment of our own uranium.

Managing the nuclear genie will depend on technological innovation and the kind of multilateral policy creativity that we hope to see in Washington this week. The alternative, as Mr. Perry’s video portrays, would be a nightmare.


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