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Watchdog cleared tritium shipment to Iran

Watchdog cleared tritium shipment to IranSale of 70,000 glow-in-the-dark lights okayed by nuclear agency

By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

THE GLOBE AND MAIL – The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approved a shipment to Iran last year by a Canadian company of about 70,000 glow-in-the-dark lights containing tritium, a radioactive gas that can also be used as a component in hydrogen bombs.

The amount of tritium approved by the nuclear regulator for shipment to the volatile Middle Eastern country was about 10 per cent of the quantity considered necessary for making one nuclear weapon, although the company selling the lights, SRB Technologies (Canada) Inc., said it sent less than it was allowed.

The sale to Iran was confirmed by the CNSC after The Globe and Mail obtained heavily censored e-mails originating from the federal nuclear watchdog about the transaction. Another e-mail that discussed SRB indicated the federal bureaucracy didn’t want any atomic sales that would lead to Canadian complicity in programs by either Iran or North Korea to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"We must be particularly vigilant to ensure that Canada does nothing that could assist, directly or indirectly, the nuclear programs or WMD capabilities of either country," Marc Vidricaire, then a senior disarmament official at the Department of Foreign Affairs, wrote in an e-mail sent to his counterpart at the CNSC.

The names of the countries were originally deleted by the CNSC in the version of the e-mail it made public, but Foreign Affairs identified them in a written statement to The Globe. Mr. Vidricaire, who subsequently left the federal government to become chief spokesman for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, also wrote that the CNSC shouldn’t have approved the tritium export by SRB Technologies without first seeking the views of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Vidricaire refused to comment on his e-mail, but Jim Casterton, a senior CNSC official, said in an interview that the agency approved a shipment by SRB of lights to Iran in 2005. There were no indications in the records of any dealings with North Korea.

The delivery to Iran was made in three batches between May and July. At the time, there were widespread international fears about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and EU states were warning that any resumption by the country of its uranium conversion efforts would end negotiations linked to trade and economic issues.

The CNSC said the shipment was allowed to contain a maximum of 0.4 grams of tritium, but refused to comment on how easy or difficult it would be for the tritium sent to Iran to be diverted for a bomb.

Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is a so-called dual use item, meaning it has both peaceful applications, such as making glow-in-the-dark lights and the illuminated markings on watches, and a use in atomic bombs. Regulators monitor it closely, keeping track of even minute quantities, because only four grams, or about the weight of a 25-cent piece, is considered enough to make a plutonium-based nuclear weapon.

Federal tritium export guidelines have been developed to reduce the possibility of successful weapons production by rogue nations. The guidelines stipulate that countries failing to abide by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons can’t be sent more than a gram of tritium annually in products such as lights, from any one exporter. Any amount can be sent to countries abiding by the treaty.

According to the e-mails and to Mr. Casterton, SRB also sought permission to send lights to Iran in 2004, but later withdrew the application for the sale. Mr. Casterton said this earlier application was for just less than a gram of tritium.

Canada is one of the world’s biggest sources of tritium because Candu reactors generate large quantities of it as a waste product. Ontario Power Generation extracts about 2.5 kilograms of it a year. Tritium is one of the world’s most expensive substances, selling for about $25,000 a gram.

The lights were made by SRB in Pembroke, Ont.

The company declined to identify its Iranian purchaser for commercial reasons, but said the buyer was an optical company.

SRB president Stephane Levesque said the quantity of tritium shipped to Iran was less than the amount permitted in its licence, at about a quarter of a gram. He said the purchaser used the lights to make compasses that can be read in the dark.

SRB makes items including emergency signs, and Mr. Levesque said the company’s products are designed to save lives.

"We make lights that glow in the dark, to illuminate various products for life safety, nothing else," he said.

But the sale of products using tritium has been questioned by some disarmament advocates because of nuclear proliferation fears.

"The tritium trade epitomizes the risks of the nuclear industry because it has commercial applications, as well as nuclear weapons applications," contended David Martin, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace. "It’s clear that tritium has ready and easy applications to nuclear weapons, so it should be treated with the utmost security."

The CNSC also refused to identify the purchaser.

E-mails on the export were obtained through an Access to Information Act request made by an environmental group in Pembroke, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County, seeking records the nuclear agency held on SRB.

Mr. Casterton, the CNSC’s acting executive director of international affairs, defended the Iranian shipment, saying the nuclear regulator is "vigilant" about making sure atomic materials from Canada do not contribute to nuclear proliferation.

He said federal policies on tritium are designed to "assure Canadians that these exports do not assist in any way for the development of nuclear weapons, or nuclear explosive devices."

But this view on the shipment wasn’t shared by Mr. Vidricaire. Staff at Foreign Affairs review sensitive nuclear shipments, but in the case of SRB, Mr. Vidricaire was miffed that the CNSC approved the Iranian transaction before his officials were able to provide their views.

Although Mr. Vidricaire’s e-mail is heavily censored and Iran is not named directly, a previous e-mail exchange sent a month earlier identifies a proposed shipment to Iran by SRB as being a point of contention between the two agencies.

Mr. Vidricaire told the CNSC that it should assume the federal government would not approve future sales of tritium to countries posing proliferation risks, and he reminded the agency that then-prime-minister Paul Martin had been making speeches saying Canada had to be seen as taking a tough stand on nuclear weapons.

"In view of the foregoing, [Foreign Affairs] requests that when in the future CNSC reviews applications for the export . . . [censored] . . . for tritium, items containing tritium, or tritium-related technology, or for the export of nuclear or nuclear-related dual-use items, you do so on the basis of a presumption of denial."