Unusual wording in nuclear deal questioned

Prime Minister’s Office says it’s just ‘semantics.’

IAEA Photo
A control room at the Madras Atomic Power Station in India is pictured in this IAEA file photo.
Carl Meyer
Published: Wednesday, 11/21/2012 12:00 am EST
Last Updated: Wednesday, 04/15/2015 10:13 am EDT


Canada’s nuclear safety commission says it is sticking with unusual wording to describe part of the country’s recently concluded nuclear deal with India because it is only being consistent with previous texts, but it can’t say why the language was used in the first place.

After Canada signs agreements with countries to export nuclear items like uranium, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission often announces deals that lay out how that transfer will take place. That’s what happened with the United Arab Emirates on Sept. 19, with China on July 27, and with Russia on March 2—all titled “administrative arrangements” by the federal nuclear regulator.

But when the prime ministers of Canada and India issued a joint statement on Nov. 6 praising the end of talks over another deal to transport nuclear material, they called it an “appropriate arrangement.” The commission then followed suit, using the term in a press release.

The difference in language is subtle—so much so that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office continued to use the old, standard term in a press release of its own on Nov. 6, as did Mr. Harper in his speech at the World Economic Forum the day after.

The change, however, was not lost on nuclear disarmament experts, who have been arguing that Canada’s deal with India sidestepped global efforts to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as Embassy reported Nov. 14. 

The country is not part of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, and critics worry that India will use Canadian uranium imports going to power plants as an opportunity to develop more weapons with their own material.

As the new deal’s text is secret, there is no way to prove that the agreement is a weaker one than previous ones that Canada has signed, they say, but the wording change raises eyebrows.

“CNSC is clearly sensitive to the difference between what was concluded with India and their normal arrangement, and hence the different term being employed by them in their media release,” wrote former Canadian ambassador for disarmament Paul Meyer in an email.

“The substance here is that in the past Canada has insisted on its own additional bilateral safeguard requirements over and above the [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards, but has abandoned this requirement in the case of India.”

Ernie Regehr, a former adviser on Canadian government delegations to multilateral disarmament forums, also questioned why the nuclear safety commission would use atypical language with India—speculating that the CNSC may have wanted to give an indication that the arrangement is something short of a standard agreement.

“The PMO may be happy to use the term in a non-technical sense, but CNSC would obviously want to be more technically precise—hence the thought that they may be [signalling] that the arrangement with India is less stringent,” he wrote in an email.

Semantics or substance?

A spokesperson for the nuclear safety commission said that the language, to his knowledge, is unprecedented. 

“That’s the first time that I’m aware of it being used,” said Aurèle Gervais, chief adviser for media and community relations at the CNSC.

The nuclear body says the new term is due to it being consistent with terminology used in the 2010 nuclear deal between Canada and India. But when asked why the term was used back then, Mr. Gervais said: “that was agreed upon between the two countries.”

He would go back to that when asked repeatedly why the new term was used.

“I wasn’t part of the negotiations,” he said. 

The CNSC denies that the change in wording has anything to do with the perception of Canada signing a weaker version of past deals. 

“Absolutely not,” wrote Mr. Gervais in an email in a separate conversation.

“The provisions agreed to in the Canada-India arrangement provide equivalent assurances to arrangements that Canada has with other countries.”

The Prime Minister’s Office says the reason it used the old term, while the federal regulator was using the new term, is simple: the two are interchangeable.

“It’s semantics—both refer to the same thing,” wrote Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for the PMO, in an email. Mr. Gervais also echoed this in his email.

Narinder Chauhan, the acting Indian high commissioner, said she shares the position of the commission that the new term was used for consistency with the 2010 agreement.

The Canadian government maintains that it is content with the level of scrutiny afforded by the deal.

“Both the government and the CNSC are satisfied that it meets our needs with respect to our non-proliferation commitments,” wrote Mr. MacDougall.

One detail that the two governments have released about the so-called appropriate arrangement is that it will involve sharing information through a joint committee. 

The Indian and Canadian governments both insist they have committed to nuclear security through the IAEA. In a Nov. 6 joint statement, Mr. Harper and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “reaffirmed their support for global efforts for non-proliferation and elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.”

The commission says India is subject to agency controls and oversight, that Canadian nuclear material “will only go to facilities that are subject to IAEA safeguards” and that the 2010 deal was a formal, treaty-level agreement “that commits both countries to strong non-proliferation principles” according to a separate email from Mr. Gervais.

An IAEA spokesperson said the agency could not provide commentary by press time. 



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