The International Atomic Energy Agency intends this year to flesh out plans for an international nuclear fuel repository at an isolated metallurgical site in Kazakhstan, the BBC reported Friday (see GSN, Sept. 29, 2009).
The fuel bank, monitored by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, would provide fuel for atomic power plants in nations that pledged to avoid development of enrichment programs that could produce nuclear weapons material. The massive warehouse slated to host the facility would store 60 metric tons of low-enriched uranium reactor fuel under the IAEA plan.
"This is something that is a visible quantity of nuclear material. It will provide user countries with a greater assurance that the material would be available to them and they would not have the need to build their own enrichment facilities," said IAEA official Tariq Rauf.
Some nations worry that the program is aimed at undercutting their right to domestically enrich uranium for civilian use. The process can produce nuclear weapons material as well as nuclear power plant fuel.
"The leading players are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Argentina," Rauf said. "These are heavyweight countries. Some are G-20 members. It's a group that in numbers and influence is powerful and making its voice heard. For us, it's a matter of confidence building."
The Vienna-based agency would assume complete control of the Kazakh site as well as ownership of the nuclear material it would store.
"There is plenty of storage space," said Anatoly Kushovsky, the facility's operations director. "We have many years experience in handling nuclear materials and if this deal goes ahead, it could be a key to solving the nuclear crisis."
"Enrichment facilities are not only inherently dangerous, but also extraordinary pricey," said Charles Curtis, former president of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, a key player in the fuel-bank plan. "They cost between $5 [billion] and $10 billion and you would need between 10 and 20 nuclear reactors to justify that money. The fuel bank offers a guaranteed supply and much cheaper alternative for states that only need one or two reactors for their electrical power" (Humphrey Hawksley, BBC News, Jan. 8).
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