Canadian Nordion accused of frustrating efforts to wean the world off nuclear weapons-grade uranium

Canadian health products provider Nordion was the target of criticism at a major nuclear security summit in South Korea due to the company’s deal with Russia that entitles it to sell medical isotopes made with weapons-grade uranium for the next eight years.

Ottawa-based Nordion Inc. is one of the world’s largest producers and sellers of the radioactive substance, used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other diseases.

The debate about the value of Nordion’s work is, according to U.S. secretary of energy Steven Chu and other senior officials at the summit, that it uses weapons-grade uranium.

In 2010, Canada and other countries vowed to start producing medical isotopes with non-weapons-grade uranium. But the same year in September, Nordion signed the now controversial 10-year agreement with Russia that gives the Canadian company exclusive rights to distribute and sell medical isotopes produced with weapons-grade uranium from that country.

The Globe and Mail reports the deal has a coalition of American arms-control advocates and non-proliferation experts, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, protesting against Canada for what they consider is a way of delaying global efforts to guarantee bomb-grade uranium does not fall into terrorists’ hands.

“This deal basically makes it impossible for people using the safer material to compete,” said Miles Pomper, a Washington-based senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It discourages other countries from converting, which means there’s more [highly enriched uranium] in other places, too.”

Postmedia News reports that Canada’s federal government is defending the agreement, saying the nation has “a responsibility for ensuring an adequate global supply of a radioactive substance that is critical for 100,000 medical procedures every day.”

Canada does not have nuclear weapons, which means it does not enrich uranium. Nordion regularly imports enriched uranium from the U.S.

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