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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Canada will return spent nuclear fuel to its supplier, the United States, as part of a global drive to secure fissile materials, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Monday.
A "significant quantity" of used highly enriched uranium stored at Canada's Chalk River National Laboratories will be repatriated by 2018, Harper said while attending U.S. President Barack Obama's nuclear security summit in Washington.
"While all this material is obviously highly secure in Canada, it is our view that the best thing for all countries to do, not just for ourselves, is to return such material to their countries of origin. And so we want to encourage other countries to do so as well," Harper told reporters.
The first Chalk River reactor started working in 1945, after a wartime agreement between Britain, Canada and the United States to cooperate on a "heavy water project".
Especially during the Cold War era, the lab worked with weapons grade highly enriched uranium, although Harper said that was no longer the case.
"Historically, the Chalk River Laboratory worked on highly enriched uranium fuel. It no longer does," he said. "We still use highly enriched uranium for some purposes but obviously as we are moving forward we are trying to make sure that our future activities don't involve highly enriched uranium."
Harper did not say how much uranium would be sent to the United States, but a senior Canadian official said the amount represented 11 years of work at Chalk River. The Canadian government is providing C$65 million ($65 million) to pay for the transfer.
The existing reactor at the Chalk River facility has been dogged with problems in recent years and it was closed in May 2009 after a leak of heavy water. Its reopening has been delayed repeatedly, causing a shortage of the medical isotopes that it had been producing.
Reporting by Dan Williams; editing by David Storey