On a frigid December day in 2010, Charles Curtis and Corey Hinderstein of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) sat in an empty office at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, intently listening to a live audio feed of a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors elsewhere in the very same building. They were waiting for the 35-member board to take up “assurance of nuclear fuel supply,” the rubric under which it would consider a proposal that NTI had set out four years earlier: create an international “bank” of low-enriched uranium (LEU) so that countries interested in nuclear energy wouldn’t feel the need to develop their own uranium-enrichment capabilities, further spreading the technology that also can be used to build nuclear weapons.
NTI had offered $50 million for the project, with two key conditions. One or more IAEA member states had to provide an additional $100 million to fund the bank, and the IAEA had to take “the necessary actions to approve establishment of this reserve.” The financial condition already had been met. The board vote that Curtis, NTI’s president, and Hinderstein, vice president for international programs, were monitoring would satisfy the second.
It was clear to Curtis and Hinderstein that the proposal would be approved, but their goal was not just to gain a simple majority. For a vote like this, which represented a new kind of undertaking for the IAEA, it was important that the board reach consensus—but in the run-up to the December vote, some countries had continued to raise questions and objections about the plan for the LEU bank. Curtis and Hinderstein had spent months meeting with delegations whose votes were uncertain; the U.S. government and other countries contributing to the bank also made it a priority.
One potentially sensitive issue was the unusual role of NTI, a nongovernmental organization, and whether its proposal was trespassing into the domain of IAEA member states. That’s why Curtis and Hinderstein, even though they had the credentials to be inside the board’s meeting room, elected to listen to the proceedings remotely.
When the vote finally came, the board had approved the proposal without a single dissenting vote—28 yeses, six abstentions, and one absence.