Canada's Role in Global Nuclear Activity

A six-nation group made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China – and Germany, has struck an accord with Iran that will see it open its nuclear program to international inspection. The deal in principle had been in place since November, but remained unsigned prior to this week. Massimo Aparo of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will head the inspections, which will include talks with Iranian nuclear officials as part of a verification process to determine the scope and capability of Iran’s nuclear activity.

We have previously discussed nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran on Clio’s Current, as well as Stephen Harper’s diplomacy where these matters are concerned, but Canada’s international nuclear role is worth revisiting in light of this recent news. Do not mistake Canada’s exclusion from the six-nation group to have negotiated this most-recent nuclear deal to mean that Canada is an insignificant player in the global nuclear regime. In fact, Canada has a long and complex history of global nuclear activity, and remains amongst the world’s leaders in nuclear power generation and consumption.

Decades prior to becoming a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, Canada became an international leader in the mining and sale of nuclear materials. Canada’s association with the global nuclear industry dates to the Second World War, when strong business partnerships between state and private enterprises fostered and maintained the growth of Ontario’s nuclear-related activities. During the war, Ontario was exploited for its rich uranium deposits at Elliot Lake and Port Hope, and out of postwar industrialization spawned an active nuclear reactor development sector which provided financial opportunities for some of the more well developed urban regions of the province. 

At its height, Canadian mining provided a staggering 80% of the uranium used by the United States in the creation and build-up of its postwar nuclear arsenal. The Cold War nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union came to a head in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. After having supposedly placed nuclear-capable missiles launch sites on the island of Cuba, President John F. Kennedy demanded Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev remove what the American leader called a provocative, secret and direct threat against Western hemispheric security. The world stood still for two harrowing weeks, until the superpower leaders came to an agreement and the Soviet’s removed the missile threat from Cuba.

The terrifying crisis revealed the propensity for global annihilation and thereafter international nuclear activity has been both highly monitored and scrutinized. In addition to being a signatory of the NPT, which aims to control and prevent the spread of dangerous nuclear and nuclear-related materials between state and non-state actors, Canada is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG promotes safe nuclear material transfer between signatory NPT members through regulatory processes which critique and stipulate the operations of the IAEA. 

Nuclear power generation is decisively different than nuclear weapons generation, but it’s important to remember the two are linked. Preventing the spread of dangerous nuclear and nuclear-related materials, such as uranium and gaseous fission, is vitally important to prevent clandestine nuclear activity and maintain international security. It is in this light that Canada promotes the efforts of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Even though the maintenance of national sovereignty as well as the protection and preservation of human and environmental rights have conflicted with lucrative financial gains provided by domestic and international nuclear involvement, Canada remains an active partner in global nuclear safety.

In addition to Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta also have ties to the domestic and international nuclear industries. These provinces have seen more political activity by pro- and anti-nuclear coalitions in response to reactor development and refurbishment than have Canada’s other provinces with strong connections to the nuclear sector, namely Quebec and Manitoba. In 2009, for example, the Saskatchewan public showed a strong opposition to the province’s nuclear activity. A survey conducted by the provincial government concluded that the public was against uranium mining and future nuclear power generation, yet the province decided to maintain and further grow its nuclear-related activities to support financial growth. A similar decision had been made by the Alberta government just a year prior in 2008, when environmental, social, economic, and health concerns raised by the Nuclear Power Expert Panel failed to prevent expansion of the province’s nuclear industry. In both cases the provincial need for power generation precluded any possible reduction of nuclear and nuclear-related industrial activity. 

 It’s worth noting that the complexity and logic behind Canada’s nuclear policy at both the provincial and national level is by no means unique. Globally, jurisdictions in North America, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere have chosen to support and grow domestic as well as international nuclear activity because demand for nuclear energy is much stronger than that of other sources, including natural gas, oil, coal, biofuels, wind, and solar.

Well-known global advocacy for the dangers of nuclear power generation was ignited by nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), yet none of the three disasters prevented the forward growth of the international nuclear industry. There remains an extremely high need for nuclear power, even in a global market which is increasing its demand for green energy and fossil fuel alternatives. With this in mind, it is the responsibility of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime – of which Canada has been and remains an active partner – to continue to safeguard against dangerous and clandestine nuclear activity. One only wonders, however, just how privy the Canadian government is to the global nuclear activities with which it is so intimately involved.