IAEA Board Approves Nuclear Fuel Supply Plan

(Mar. 10) -The headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. The 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors on Thursday endorsed a British plan aimed at offering countries in good standing assured access to nuclear fuel imports (Joe Klamar/Getty Images).
(Mar. 10) -The headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. The 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors on Thursday endorsed a British plan aimed at offering countries in good standing assured access to nuclear fuel imports (Joe Klamar/Getty Images).

VIENNA, Austria -- The governing board for the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday approved a British proposal intended to further ensure nations' access to nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes (see GSN, Dec. 6, 2010).

A resolution on London's "fuel assurance" plan passed in a roll-call poll of the 35-nation board, with 26 states voting yes, eight abstaining and one absent.

The project is the latest component of a broad effort to dissuade governments from developing the nuclear fuel cycle, which can be used to produce nuclear-weapon material as well as reactor fuel. It arrives amid a resurgent interest in atomic energy, particularly in the Middle East.

The IAEA Board of Governors in previous meetings signed off on plans for establishing two fuel banks from which nations could draw their needed supply of material. Russia's facility in Siberia formally began operations in December, while a decision on the location of the second plant is due this fall (see GSN, Dec. 20, 2010).

Conception of London's plan dates back to 2006 and had backing from the European Union, Russia and the United States. It is intended to complement the fuel banks, but unlike those projects involves no actual facilities. Instead, the fuel assurance calls for establishing bilateral agreements in which supplier nations would ensure provision of nuclear fuel to IAEA member countries with new or growing nuclear power programs.

"A nuclear fuel assurance would not change or undermine a state's rights to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes ... in any way whatsoever," Simon Smith, the British envoy to the agency, told the board on Thursday.

"The offer of nuclear fuel assurance would simply be one item on a 'menu of options' to serve as a further confidence-building measure for those states interested in adopting or expanding a nuclear power program," he added in the statement, released to reporters outside the closed-door meeting.

To be eligible, a fuel-seeking nation would be required to have a safeguards deal with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. There must be no doubts on the part of the agency or the Board of Governors regarding the nation's adherence to the agreement, which is intended to prevent civilian nuclear material from being diverted to military operations.

Nations must also pledge that fuel acquired from supplier states is to be used solely for civilian atomic energy efforts and would be adequately secured.

In return, they would be assured of "non-interruption of supply of [low-enriched uranium] for noncommercial reasons," according to a British memorandum on the plan.

The IAEA director general would also sign the agreements to confirm that the recipient states are Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty member countries, have safeguards deals with the agency, and are not the subject of questions regarding any possible safeguards breaches.

Assurance agreements would prevent fuel-providing nations from placing "additional, ad hoc or arbitrary conditions" on the supply of fuel to recipient states, said nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hibbs argued that such deals might help keep nations intent on producing nuclear energy from pursuing the fuel cycle. They are unlikely to have a similar effect on any state that specifically wants the capability to manufacture nuclear-weapon material, he said.

Iran, which faces persistent questions about the intentions of its nuclear program, said on Thursday "there are a lot of legal, technical and financial questions related to this proposal yet to be answered." The nation is not a member of the governing board and could not vote on the issue.

"Nature and justification of the eligibility criteria established for the 'recipient' states by this proposal is going to be a discriminative approach and intend to polarize and politicize the agency, which is a dangerous precedent for the future of this international technical body," according to Iranian Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh's released statement.

Soltanieh suggested that his comments were in keeping with statements offered by the Group of 77 developing nations and the Nonaligned Movement states, which were not made public.

Board members that voted in favor of the plan included Canada, China, India, Jordan, Russia, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Among the abstentions were Brazil, Singapore, South Africa and Tunisia. The absent country was Pakistan.

March 10, 2011
About

VIENNA, Austria -- The governing board for the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday approved a British proposal intended to further ensure nations' access to nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes (see GSN, Dec. 6, 2010).