Login/Logout

*
*  

ACA’s journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent.

– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

IAEA Board Approves Fuel Bank Plan
Share this

Latest ACA Resources

Daniel Horner

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors agreed Dec. 3 to establish a nuclear fuel bank, endorsing the plan without a dissenting vote from any of the 35 members.

In the vote, which came on the second day of the board’s two-day meeting in Vienna, 28 countries supported the plan and six abstained. Pakistan was absent. The tally marked a shift from the vote a year earlier on another fuel bank proposal, authorizing Russia to set up a fuel reserve at the Angarsk site in Siberia (table 1). On that vote, eight countries voted against the plan and three abstained. (See ACT, January/February 2010.)

The just-endorsed plan would set up a reserve of low-enriched uranium (LEU) under IAEA control. In 2006 the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a private U.S. organization, pledged $50 million for such a reserve on the condition that IAEA member states donate another $100 million and that the board approve the plan. The NTI originally said the plan had to be in place within two years, but since then has agreed to three one-year extensions.

Pledges from the United States, the European Union, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Norway have combined to meet the $100 million goal, with the last pledge, Kuwait’s, coming in March 2009.

According to a background memo that the IAEA Secretariat issued in January 2010, the $150 million should be enough funding for the purchase and delivery of 60 to 80 metric tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU), enriched to a level of less than 5 percent uranium-235. That is roughly the amount of LEU needed for a full core of a typical power reactor, once the LEU is fabricated into reactor fuel.

In the months leading up to the vote, key supporters of the measure had been working on “building as broad a consensus as possible” in favor of it by explaining the motivations and rationale, NTI Vice President for International Programs Corey Hinderstein said in a Dec. 9 interview.

The United States “did a lot of lobbying” and “took some hints” from the Angarsk vote, a European diplomat said in a Dec. 20 interview. Some countries reportedly did not support the Angarsk resolution because of the way in which the issue was raised, with what they saw as insufficient time to consider it.

“Everyone in the U.S. government is very pleased” with the results of the recent vote, a Department of State official said in a Dec. 22 interview.

Russia, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the EU members of the IAEA board joined the United States in sponsoring the resolution.

India’s Shift

One country whose position changed between the two votes was India, which abstained on the Angarsk vote but supported the NTI proposal. In its statement explaining its vote, India said, “As a country with advanced nuclear technology, India would like to participate as a supplier state in such initiatives.” Such statements generally are not public, but India’s Ministry of External Affairs released the statement Dec. 4.

According to a Nov. 26 IAEA document laying out the plan for the fuel bank, one of the eligibility requirements for recipients is that the state “has brought into force a comprehensive safeguards agreement requiring the application of safeguards to all its peaceful nuclear activities and pursuant to which safeguards are to be applied to the LEU that is supplied through the IAEA LEU bank.”

India, which is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has placed only some of its power reactors and other nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. Sources said the language in the document was understood to be a clear reference to the so-called full-scope safeguards required under INFCIRC/153, the IAEA document that sets out the safeguards requirements for NPT parties other than the five countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that the treaty designates as nuclear-weapon states. Consequently, India would not be eligible to receive fuel from the bank.

India would not have been expected to be a recipient of fuel from the bank in any case, the State Department official said. The relatively small amount of fuel that the bank would hold would mean that it would not be applicable to India’s needs, he said. The fuel bank proposal is aimed at countries whose programs are “just starting out,” and India’s is “far, far beyond” that, he said.

India’s vote for the proposal indicates “a new level of bilateral cooperation” with the United States on matters relating to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the State Department official said. The United States has been building nuclear ties with India since 2005, when the two countries’ leaders announced an initiative to ease U.S. and international restrictions on nuclear trade with India.

In the past, issues such as the requirement for full-scope safeguards might have led India to reject the proposal “automatically,” but the vote in favor of the fuel bank suggests that that may no longer be the case, the State Department official said.

South Africa, a key member of the Nonaligned Movement, abstained on the December vote; it had voted against the Angarsk plan. Indian and South African officials did not respond to requests for comment on their countries’ votes.

Another factor, the European diplomat said, was the IAEA board’s shift to a more “favorable composition” since the Angarsk vote, as some of the strong opponents rotated off the board and were replaced by countries that were more amenable to the idea. (See ACT, November 2010.)

Multiple Rationales

The fuel bank is intended to serve as a backup to other fuel-supply mechanisms, most notably the commercial fuel market. As the IAEA memo describes it, the bank is “designed to be used rarely.”

By providing countries with an assured supply of fuel at market prices, the bank is intended to dissuade recipients from pursuing their own uranium-enrichment programs. In a Dec. 3 press release hailing the board’s vote, NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn said, “If every country interested in nuclear energy also chooses to pursue uranium enrichment, the risk of proliferation of dangerous nuclear materials and weapons would grow beyond the tipping point. The IAEA fuel bank now gives countries an alternative to that choice and direction.”

In early articulations of fuel bank proposals, some supporters framed them to require recipients to forgo indigenous enrichment programs, an approach that led to objections from many of the potential developing-country recipients. According to numerous accounts, suspicions on that front persist although more recent language has not linked eligibility for fuel bank material to any kind of renunciation. In an effort to address those concerns, the November IAEA document says, “The rights of Member States, including establishing or expanding their own production capacity in the nuclear fuel cycle, shall remain intact and shall not in any way be compromised or diminished by the establishment of international assurance of supply mechanisms.”

The document reinforces that point with two additional sentences: “Thus, having the right to receive LEU from the guaranteed supply mechanism shall not require giving up the right to establish or further develop a national fuel cycle or have any impact on it. The additional options for assurance of supply shall be in addition to the rights that exist at present.”

On the issue of proliferation, the IAEA background memo says that some agency members

observed that concerns related to nuclear proliferation must not in any way restrict the inalienable right of all States to develop all aspects of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes, given in particular the relevance of nuclear science and technology for the sustainable socio-economic advance of developing nations, and that there should not be any attempts aimed at discouraging the pursuit of any peaceful nuclear technology on the grounds of its alleged “sensitivity.”

Addressing that point, the memo says that,

[w]ith respect to the comment made by some Member States regarding the “alleged sensitive nature of enrichment and [spent fuel] reprocessing technologies”, which are technologies in the civilian nuclear fuel cycle that could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons, it may be recalled that inter alia these two technologies were identified as “sensitive technological areas” by the Board in the context of the application of safeguards in relation to the granting of technical cooperation by the IAEA.

The State Department official said that the “tenor” of the November document “is a result of the discussions we had.” Although the nonproliferation aspect of the fuel bank was paramount for the United States, “countries that eventually supported it [did so] for different reasons,” with some seeing it as an “insurance policy,” he said.

Hinderstein also said that countries had varying reasons for supporting the proposal. However, she said, the debate over the question of whether fuel cycle technology should be called sensitive showed how discussions at the IAEA on politically charged issues have sometimes “separated themselves from reality.” Although acquisition of enrichment or reprocessing technology does not indicate a “nefarious” purpose, the technology could be misused by a future government in the country that acquires it, she said. Also, the more broadly the technology is disseminated, the greater the chance that, through subsequent legal or illegal exports, it will end up in a country that will misuse it, she said.

With the vote now completed, it is “important to see how this is going to be implemented” and make sure it is “as smooth and efficient as possible,” the European diplomat said. Key steps will be acquiring the LEU for the fuel bank on the commercial market and determining a host country for the bank, he said.

Kazakhstan is the only country that has declared an interest in hosting the bank.

Table 1: Fuel Bank Votes

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors has voted on two proposals to establish a fuel bank of low-enriched uranium. The vote on the first proposal, on Nov. 27, 2009, was to establish a reserve at the Angarsk site in Siberia. The vote on the second proposal, on Dec. 3, 2010, was on a plan by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to set up a fuel reserve under IAEA control.

 

Country

Angarsk

NTI

Afghanistan

Y

NM

Argentina

N

Abst.

Australia

Y

Y

Azerbaijan

--*

Y

Belgium

NM

Y

Brazil

N

Abst.

Burkina Faso

Y

NM

Cameroon

Y

Y

Canada

Y

Y

Chile

NM

Y

China

Y

Y

Cuba

N

NM

Czech Republic

NM

Y

Denmark

Y

Y

Ecuador

NM

Abst.

Egypt

N

NM

France

Y

Y

Germany

Y

Y

India

Abst.

Y

Italy

NM

Y

Japan

Y

Y

Jordan

NM

Y

Kenya

Abst.

Y

Malaysia

N

NM

Mongolia

Y

Y

Netherlands

Y

Y

New Zealand

Y

NM

Niger

NM

Y

Pakistan

N

--

Peru

Y

Y

Portugal

NM

Y

Romania

Y

NM

Russia

Y

Y

Singapore

NM

Y

South Africa

N

Abst.

South Korea

Y

Y

Spain

Y

NM

Switzerland

Y

NM

Tunisia

NM

Abst.

Turkey

Abst.

NM

Ukraine

Y

Y

United Arab Emirates

NM

Y

United Kingdom

Y

Y

United States

Y

Y

Uruguay

Y

NM

Venezuela

N

Abst.

 

TOTALS

Y             23

N             8

Abst.       3

--              1

Y               28

N               0

Abst.         6

--                1

Key:

Y  Yes

N  No

Abst. Abstain

--  Absent

NM  Not a board member at the time of the vote

*Azerbaijan later said it would have voted in favor of the resolution.

Sources: Media reports, interviews with diplomats

 

Posted: January 10, 2011