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IAEA Governors to Consider Nuclear Fuel Bank Proposals

(May. 20) -A worker moves a uranium container at the Angarsk complex in Siberia. Russia has offered to let the International Atomic Energy Agency manage sales of nuclear fuel that could be produced at the site (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo). (May. 20) -A worker moves a uranium container at the Angarsk complex in Siberia. Russia has offered to let the International Atomic Energy Agency manage sales of nuclear fuel that could be produced at the site (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo).

The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation governing board appears set next month to consider at least one proposal for establishing a multilateral center for production and distribution of civilian nuclear power plant fuel, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, April 17).

The proposed international nuclear fuel bank is intended to provide reliable access to civilian reactor fuel for nations that agree not to pursue capabilities that could produce weapon-grade nuclear material.

The concept has circulated for decades, but it gained momentum in 2003 when Iran announced its intention to enrich uranium. While the Middle Eastern state has insisted it would only use the process to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes, Western powers fear Tehran might tap the process to generate nuclear-weapon material, a move that could prompt other nations to seek similar capabilities (see related GSN story, today).

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei warned recently of the potential for significant numbers of new "virtual" nuclear powers -- states with the expertise and material to produce the bomb (see GSN, May 15).

"The real risk is that highly enriched uranium could be acquired by, say, terrorist groups," said Alexander Konovalov, an adviser to the Russian government. "All they need is 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of enriched uranium. All the rest (to make a bomb) can be found on the Internet."

One leading fuel bank proposal, put forward by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, would involve using $150 million to establish a stockpile of low-enriched uranium, enabling the International Atomic Energy Agency to distribute nuclear fuel at market rates on a permanent basis. Billionaire Warren Buffet and various governments have offered funds to support the effort.

Russia, meanwhile, has offered to establish an international fuel enrichment station in Siberia. The U.N. nuclear watchdog would oversee sales of fuel produced by the site, ensuring that distribution took place on an apolitical basis.

A German proposal calls for establishment of an IAEA enrichment site on "internationalized soil," producing material for nations that pledge themselves to nonproliferation.

Kazakhstan is considering housing such a site (see GSN, May 19).

Such concepts face considerable opposition from the IAEA governing board, which includes nations that oppose nuclear fuel production rights being limited to certain states.

"We cannot have divides where some own nuclear technology and others not," Egyptian diplomat and nonproliferation analyst Mohamad Shaker said, calling for "have-nots" to receive an equal stake in any international fuel bank.

Iran is also not expected to halt its pursuit of enrichment capabilities.

IAEA governors might first address the simpler Russian fuel bank proposal and then consider the NTI framework at their meeting scheduled in September, according to AP (Charles Hanley, Associated Press/Washington Post, May 19).

[Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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