WASHINGTON — As the United States and its negotiating partners continue nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, the pressure is rising. The deadline for a final accord is July 20, and success hinges on Iran agreeing to verifiable commitments to prove to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
Unfortunately, at this critical point in the talks, a separate development that could support and reinforce an agreement with Iran has stalled. This development — the creation of an international fuel bank, to be owned and managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency — would allow countries full assurance that they could access nuclear fuel in the unusual case of an interruption of their supply.
A key element of any agreement with Tehran is the number and type of centrifuges Iran will have. Centrifuges can be used to enrich uranium from the level that is found in nature to a level that can fuel a nuclear power plant or to a level that could be used in a nuclear bomb. If a country has the capacity to make low-enriched uranium for a nuclear power plant, it also has the technical capability to make highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. This is the key source of concern over uranium enrichment in Iran, given the country’s repeated violations of international nonproliferation obligations and the work the Iranians have already done that could lead to the development of a nuclear bomb.
Iran is not the only potential problem. Uranium enrichment is also a concern globally: A world where more and more countries make their own nuclear fuel — and thus can also produce nuclear weapons materials — is a far more dangerous world, as we have seen from North Korea.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or I.A.E.A., over 30 countries are exploring whether to build their first nuclear power plant. Either these countries will import their fuel or make it themselves.
Despite Russia’s commitment to supply the necessary fuel for Iran’s only operating nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, Iran has claimed it needs national enrichment capability to protect against an interruption in its nuclear fuel supply. So, in principle, if Iran’s concerns about security of supply are addressed, it should have no need for a large domestic enrichment program that would raise fears regionally and globally.
To address this issue, the Nuclear Threat Initiative pledged $50 million in 2006 to help create a low-enriched uranium stockpile. The pledge — made possible with financial support from Warren Buffett — was later matched by more than $100 million in contributions from the United States, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Norway and Kuwait.
The ability to acquire low-enriched uranium on a nonpolitical basis in case of interrupted supply could be a significant factor in the negotiations with Iran. After the international fuel market and national fuel resources, the fuel bank would provide a final layer of assurance. The I.A.E.A. bank is a last-resort source if the first two backups could not fill the gap.
In addition to its relevance for Iran, the fuel bank could be important for Ukraine, should its nuclear fuel supply from Russia be cut off. This would be an aggressive move, but not unthinkable. President Vladimir Putin of Russia was reported to have announced a nuclear fuel embargo in March, though it has not been carried out.
Unfortunately, at a time when the fuel bank could be a valuable asset for countries making decisions about their nuclear programs, the bank’s completion is stalled.
In December of 2010, in a move that marked fundamental change, the I.A.E.A.’s board of governors instructed the agency’s director general to establish the fuel bank. Seven months after that, Kazakhstan, which disbanded its nuclear arsenal after the breakup of the Soviet Union, offered to host the bank. Kazakhstan has the benefit of being located on the Caspian Sea, which offers a direct maritime route to Iran, and its Ulba Metallurgical Plant has been judged by the I.A.E.A. to have the necessary infrastructure to host the bank.
But in the three years since, the agency and Kazakhstan have not been able to finalize plans. The I.A.E.A. and Kazakhstan should work together to quickly resolve the remaining issues, including determining the seismic stability of the Ulba facility. Given the investment made by both sides in the viability of the site, implementing any required precautions to manage seismic risks should be the highest priority and demands good-faith cooperation.
If this site does not meet safety requirements, the parties must find another site in Kazakhstan or the I.A.E.A. must identify another national host to fulfill the 2010 mandate of its board of governors.
The fuel bank is not just a good idea; it’s an urgently needed tool to help prevent a growing nuclear threat. We need to move swiftly, resolve the issues and open the bank. The fuel bank may be directly relevant to an Iran agreement. It can certainly play a big role in the future to help prevent a much more dangerous world.
Sam Nunn is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He served as a United States Senator from 1972 to 1996.
NTI Co-Chairman and CEO Sam Nunn calls for swift action to resolve remaining issues and open an IAEA nuclear fuel bank.