Take care of uranium from ‘cradle to grave’

Colin Robertson

From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail April 13, 2010

Nuclear proliferation is the one issue that has kept every U.S. president since Harry Truman awake at night. Today in Washington, President Barack Obama continues his nuclear security and proliferation summitry with leaders from more than 40 nations (with two notable absentees – North Korea and Iran). Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put proliferation on the agenda of the G8/20 sessions that Canada will host in June. And yesterday, after meeting with the President, he announced a Canada-U.S. entente to further secure inventories of spent highly enriched uranium. It’s a welcome return to a file on which every postwar Canadian prime minister eventually comes to play a constructive role.

Canada is a uranium superpower. Mines in northern Saskatchewan provide nearly a quarter of the world’s production. Nuclear power is going to be part of the global energy solution. For example, it is France’s main source of electricity.

The challenge is what to do with the spent fuel and the byproduct plutonium, the vital ingredient in making nuclear bombs.

Therein lies an opportunity for another Canadian initiative that would be a real game-changer in the high-stakes world of nuclear proliferation: Declare our stewardship of Canadian uranium and its byproducts from “cradle to grave.” As the Prime Minister told a news conference yesterday, “It’s our view that the best thing for all countries to do – not just ourselves – is to return such material to their countries of origin.”

Invite the other uranium producers – Australia is the next biggest producer – to follow suit. International solidarity among the producer states would effectively close the proliferation loop. Put this on the table at the June summits with a suitable mix of incentives for those “steward nations” who will inevitably have to care for more than their own uranium (other producers include Kazakhstan and Niger). International action on the containment of blood diamonds is an example of how effective management and solidarity by the producers can change the dynamic.

Containing proliferation has been a consistent thread and driver in Canadian foreign policy. We developed expertise and experience at the United Nations through the diplomatic brilliance of ambassadors whose last names included Ignatieff and Rae. British historian Denis Brogan shrewdly observed of Canadian policy: “The basic Canadian relationship is not either with the United States or with the United Kingdom but with the world of the hydrogen bomb. The very fact that Canada is now one of the treasure houses of the world makes the naive isolationship of the inter-war years … impossible. A uranium-producing country cannot be neutral.”

Over the years, we earned both place and standing on the nuclear file. Transforming our uranium into plutonium at our Chalk River laboratories made us a partner in the development of the atomic bomb. We became the first nation to voluntarily turn down membership in the nuclear club, although, sensibly, we once kept U.S. bombs on our soil in deference to our collective security commitments.

We led in the peaceful use of nuclear power with the development of the Candu reactor and shared it, despite our later disappointment with Indian perfidy. We led in the civil-society movement. The first meeting of concerned scientists in Pugwash, N.S., gave its name to a peace movement that, like its sister, Project Ploughshares, endures. With the end of the Cold War, much of the steam has gone out of the peace movement although its spiritual heirs have found a new home with the green movement around the debate on climate change. Too bad, because nuclear proliferation is still a clear and present danger that requires the voice of civil society. For a graphic portrayal of the problem, watch the new documentary Countdown to Zero.

Canada continues to play a useful role on disarmament – for example, through the disposition of excess weapons-grade plutonium from the former Soviet Union in support of the Nunn-Lugar threat-reduction initiative. There are challenges around security and transport of the noxious material and Canadians such as Franklyn Griffiths have already done useful and cautionary research.

In the wake of this week’s summit, we can report at the G8/20 about the safe conduct and storage of spent fuel and its byproducts, drawing on the new Canada-U.S. project and our previous experience. The International Atomic Energy Agency could take on responsibility for the safe passage of the spent fuel back to the source country. Monitoring of nuclear reactors is its responsibility and it has long experience in detecting scofflaws as we latterly appreciated in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

This initiative will require broad consultation at home and abroad. There is a strong moral argument in support of the proposal: As the producer, we have some obligation to take back what we produce and give it a permanent home, perhaps in the same ground from where it was mined. Costing will be an important consideration and should be worked into the pricing at the outset. But peace of mind on proliferation is beyond price. And what a worthwhile Canadian initiative it would be.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, is a distinguished senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.


A review of In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow: Presidential Addresses about Canada from Taft to Obama in Honour of FDR’s 1938 Speech at Queen’s University, edited by Arthur Milnes, and At Home and Abroad: The Canada-U.S. Relationship and Canada’s Place in the World, by Patrick Lennox

Excerpted from The Literary Review of Canada April 2010 Review of P. Lennox and A. Milne

The back cover of In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow displays a picture of Peter Milliken, Speaker of the House of Commons, presenting a special prepublication copy of the same book to President Barack Obama in the splendidly restored Parliamentary Library when he visited Ottawa last year. Obama then received a second copy later that day from M.P. Bob Rae.

The book contains the speeches given by American presidents in Canada and Canadian prime ministers in the United States, and the careful editing by journalist-scholar Arthur Milnes gives readers the continuum of the relationship for the last century. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2009) in honour of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 Speech at Queen’s University, it is another addition to the Centre for the Study of Democracy’s Library of Political Leadership. In its 227 pages are contained a century’s essence of Canadian-American relations, seen through the official words of our leaders. Patterns emerge.

From the American side, securing their homeland has always been the dominant and abiding concern. Until the Civil War gave them a muscular and tested military, Canada, as adjunct of the British Empire, was viewed as a potential threat. Contingency plans for a Canadian invasion were kept on file until early in the 20th century.  Roosevelt’s unequivocal “assurance that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination by Canadian soil is threatened by any other Empire” set the course for an enduring partnership. It begins with the Ogdensburg Agreement of 1940 that created the binational Permanent Joint Board of Defence and then the 1941 Hyde Park Agreement coordinating economic resources. In the years after the war, most of the special joint economic agencies were, in Truman’s words, “quietly disbanded with a minimum of disturbance” – an early example of the relationship’s practical ‘functionalism’.

But the Soviet threat, especially after its acquisition of the atomic bomb and the capacity to deliver it by plane or missile, obliged a closer security cooperation. Canada became the potential new ‘front-line’. For mutually advantageous reasons we created a binational ‘umbrella’ in NORAD. Technological developments resulted in evolving iterations under this mutual defence pact -– BOMARC and the DEW line, to the decisions to accept the cruise missile. Later, to the surprise of both the Americans, and many senior officials, including our then just-named U.S. ambassador, Frank McKenna, and Chief of Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, we decided not to participate in ballistic missile defence.

Participating in collective security through the Atlantic community (NATO) as well as the United Nations, was not nearly as domestically contentious. It also fit comfortably with Canadian sensibilities and our preference for multilateralism. 

A second theme in the presidential speeches is the ongoing encouragement for Canada to become more involved in the Americas, first as an observer in the Organization of American States and later as a full member. Americans have always had a natural concern about their ‘backyard’ even before the 1823 Monroe doctrine asserted that further colonization of the western hemisphere was off-limits. Notwithstanding our longstanding trade and commercial relationship in the Caribbean or the missionary presence in Haiti, Canadian governments, until Brian Mulroney, were surprisingly slow to appreciate the importance of presence and engagement in the region, especially Mexico, in terms of the American relationship.

A third subject is the American delight in the big project, especially the big engineering project. Thus the continuing references to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Alaska Highway, the Trans-Canada pipeline or the Columbia River project. As the celebrated Chicago architect Daniel Burnham put it a century ago, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Therein lies a lesson for Canadian diplomacy. Presidents have scant interest in what George W. Bush described as ‘small ball’. Condoleezza Rice complained of the Canadian tendency to bring up the ‘condominium issues’ – a hassle at a port of entry or a dispute around wheat or potatoes – rather than to lead with the big picture perspective on security and economics, drawing from Canada’s international diplomatic network.

The Canadian speeches reveal a different pattern of interest. Trade and economic issues around access to the American market clearly dominate. It will come as a surprise to many Canadians that since the negotiation of the Auto Pact in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson was president, we do better at avoiding protectionism when a Republican is president.  It was Richard Nixon who granted us an exemption from the 1971 surcharge. Ronald Reagan’s dream of a free trade agreement stretching across the Americas began with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988. George H.W. Bush granted us an exemption from steel action in 1992 and George W. Bush went to the mat with GOP senators Saxby Chambliss and Trent Lott over the most recent lumber accord. Notably, though, Bill Clinton did ratify the NAFTA, with the labor and environmental safeguards, and we secured Open Skies during his administration. The reciprocity agreement on procurement just negotiated with the Obama administration is a return to the approach begun under Roosevelt with the Reciprocal Trade Agreements of 1936 and 1939.

A second theme from the Canadian prime ministers is encouragement for the Americans to partner in stewardship of our shared land and air and the effort to clean up the Great Lakes, to eliminate acid rain and to address the North. Our current approach to climate change, where we have apparently decided to both hang back and then move in tandem with the United States, is a surprising departure from previous policy. Experience suggests we do best when we take the initiative and offer bold solutions and play on the international table as well as bilaterally.

A third, and important, concern is our quest for binational and bilateral institutions – beginning with the now century-old International Joint Commission – to provide an agreed set of rules for procedure. These provide both assurance and confidence, especially for business, commerce and investment, as they level the playing field to a large extent. 

There are many gems contained in In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow including Ronald Reagan’s defence of the seal hunt and George H.W. Bush on the thrill of fishing for Arctic char. But two are required reading. Bill Clinton’s defence of federalism and the six questions he poses as a test of federalism at the Forum of the Federations Mont-Tremblant conference in October 1999 has continuing currency. So does the lesson on the American constitution delivered by the junior senator from Massachusetts at the University of Montreal in December 1953. Canadian policy-makers frustrated by the machinations of the American system would do well to read this speech, especially this passage:

Our constitutional founders believed that liberty could be preserved only when the motions of government were slow, the power divided, and tie provided for the wisdom of the people to operate against precipitous and ill-considered action. The delegates believed that they were sacrificing efficiency for liberty. They believed, in the words of James Madison, who in his middle thirties was the most vigorous figure in Philadelphia that they were “so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations…be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” (151)

The author? John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy would later enunciate what is still the pithiest statement on the Canadian-American relationship to a joint session of Parliament in May, 1961, shortly after he assumed the presidency: “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.” (80)

Keeping that relationship on an even keel is an ongoing challenge, especially for Canada. The burden of primacy means that the United States is preoccupied by crisis abroad and when it comes to the neighbourhood, the problems come from the south – the long-running quarrel with Castro, the frustrations with Chavez and the concern over the fate of Calderone and his existential civil war with the drug cartels. Canada isn’t really a problem and out of sight usually means out of mind. Thus the Canadian challenge of dealing with the hegemon.

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