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A chain reaction that put Iraq's nuclear hoard in Canada's hands

It was not your typical business meeting.

Last February, a group of Cameco Corp. executives jetted to Paris for a secret rendezvous with officials from the government of Iraq.

The topic of discussion was the Saskatoon company's interest in 550 tonnes of uranium, also known as yellowcake.

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The radioactive material represented the last vestiges of a nuclear program initiated by Iraq's former leader, Saddam Hussein. Iraq was looking for the right buyer for the yellowcake and with guidance from the U.S. State Department, Cameco had made the short list.

"At the Paris meeting we gave them an outline of an offer," Cameco spokesman Lyle Krahn said in an interview yesterday.

The clandestine gathering at an undisclosed location in the French capital eventually led to a deal for the world's largest uranium-producing company. On Saturday, about 1.2 million pounds of uranium arrived in Montreal by ship. Cameco will transport it to processing facilities in Port Hope and Blind River, Ont., where it will be readied to make fuel for nuclear reactors.

Yellowcake was at the heart of the U.S. government's justification for invading Iraq in 2003. At the time, the government claimed that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase more uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons program. When former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote that he had found no evidence of the attempted purchase, his wife Valerie Plame's job as a CIA officer was leaked to U.S. journalists by government officials.

Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice as part of the Plame affair.

Cameco won't say how much it paid for the yellowcake, only that the transaction and its terms, which were finalized in April, will make money for the company. The price tag is understood to be in the tens of millions of dollars. At current spot market prices, the material would be worth more than $72-million (U.S.).

"Not only is it profitable, it also moves uranium to a more stable part of the world and provides revenue to the Iraqis as well. It really is a positive deal for all the parties involved," Mr. Krahn said.

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The Canadian uranium company's long-standing relationship with the State Department helped pave the way for the transaction. Cameco already purchases uranium removed from decommissioned Russian nuclear warheads in a program that involves the U.S. government.

Once the deal between Iraq and Cameco was done, it was up to the U.S. military to get the yellowcake out of Iraq and deliver it to Montreal. A State Department spokesman said there were concerns that the material - which was originally obtained by Iraq before 1991, and was being stored in aging containers - would draw enemy interest.

Although the powdered yellowcake is a relatively safe material that would have to be enriched if it were to be used in a so-called dirty nuclear bomb, the U.S. government was still anxious for it to be removed from the war-ravaged country.

"Our security concerns were that terrorists or insurgents might target the facility where it was being stored to make it a high-profile target. There was a great deal of operational security in place during the time when the material was being prepared for shipment in order to safeguard the operation and the lives of American soldiers," the spokesman said.

Cameco was originally contacted by the State Department in January to see whether it was interested in pursuing a potential deal for the Iraq uranium.

Its offer beat out bids from several other private companies, including at least one U.S. firm that also met with the Iraqi government officials, the State Department official said.

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Cameco bought the yellowcake sight unseen. It had been evaluated by officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who had weighed and sampled the material in 2000. U.S. military officials had also tested the material. "Nobody [from Cameco]actually went to Iraq," Mr. Krahn said.

The uranium sold to Cameco represents the only yellowcake that was left in Iraq. "This takes care of all of it," the State Department spokesman said.

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About the Author
Asia-Pacific Reporter

An award-winning journalist, Andy Hoffman is the Asia-Pacific Reporter for Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. More

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