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

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
U.S. Proposes Nuclear Fuel Safety Net

Wade Boese

The United States recently announced it will establish a nuclear fuel reserve for countries that forgo the ability to make their own nuclear fuel. This reserve would serve as a backup source of nuclear fuel for such countries if their regular supply channels are interrupted.

Reining in fuel production capabilities has become a top priority of U.S. policymakers because such materials also can be used to make fissile material—plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU)—for nuclear weapons.

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman unveiled the outlines of the nascent U.S. proposal Sept. 26 in videotaped remarks to the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA promotes the use of nuclear technologies and materials for peaceful purposes and seeks to deter or detect the illicit use of civilian nuclear programs for building nuclear weapons. The General Conference is the annual budget and policy decision-making meeting of IAEA members, now numbering 138 states.

Bodman told the conference that the Bush administration “firmly believes that all responsible nations should have access to peaceful uses of the atom.” At the same time, Washington, other Western capitals, and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei have encouraged countries to forgo certain nuclear technologies that can be used in producing both energy and weapons, specifically uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. But some countries, such as Iran, have expressed unease or outright opposition to this approach because they contend it would deny them technologies to which they have a right and leave them at the mercy of outside suppliers.

To ameliorate this concern, Bodman said the United States would make available nuclear fuel “for an IAEA-verifiable assured supply arrangement.” He offered scant details but asserted, “Through this arrangement, I believe we can advance our common goals of fighting proliferation while expanding the use of nuclear power around the globe.”

U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Ambassador Gregory Schulte partially fleshed out the U.S. proposal in a Sept. 28 letter to ElBaradei. Schulte said the United States intends to blend down 17 excess metric tons of HEU into low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make weapons. The lower-grade uranium is the primary fuel for nuclear reactors.

The U.S. ambassador indicated the blended-down uranium would be available should a country experience a “disruption in supply” of its nuclear fuel. Only states that “forego enrichment and reprocessing” would be eligible to receive this reserve fuel, he wrote. Bodman’s reference to “responsible nations” suggests the United States might also employ additional criteria to prevent states that it does not trust, such as Iran and North Korea, from obtaining fuel from this U.S. reserve.

Noting that blending down HEU is “an extensive and time-consuming process,” Schulte estimated that “[w]e anticipate that this fuel will become available in 2009.” A U.S. government spokesperson told Arms Control Today Oct. 18 that, when completed, the blend-down process would yield approximately 10 nuclear reactor reloads.

The U.S. government has provided no additional information on how the fuel reserve would function. Left unclear is whether a recipient would be charged for the fuel, how the fuel would be transported, and how the resultant spent fuel would be handled. In his letter, Schulte stated, “Details concerning this initiative are still being finalized.”

The U.S. proposal extends a policy first enunciated by President George W. Bush in a February 2004 speech on controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2004.) The president made the case that nuclear suppliers needed to “ensure that states have reliable access at reasonable cost to fuel for civilian reactors” so they do not feel compelled to acquire their own uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. “Enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” Bush declared.

ElBaradei has argued similarly and proposed a five-year moratorium on the construction of new plants for these activities. His call has gone unheeded, but the Group of Eight—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—agreed in July to extend for another year a moratorium on any new exports of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. (See ACT, September 2005.)

The IAEA director-general also convened an experts group to explore multilateral ways of producing and providing nuclear fuel. The group released its findings in February (see ACT, March 2005), laying out five alternative approaches, but countries have not reached agreement on any particular one.

Still, ElBaradei continues to press states on the matter. At an Oct. 5 event in Moscow, he argued that one of the more “interesting and challenging projects” facing the world is developing “a regime by which we can provide assurance of supply to all countries, subject to nonproliferation criteria, to be able to have reactor technology, fuel technology, and in return, accept not to develop their own independent fuel cycle [i.e., enrichment and reprocessing capabilities].” He concluded, “I think this will be a leap of faith in protecting ourselves.”

The recent U.S. proposal differs in many respects to ElBaradei’s concept. For example, the United States would retain ownership of the fuel reserve rather than placing it under multilateral control. Congress could then intervene and pass laws restricting how the fuel reserve would be operated. Most importantly, the U.S. proposal is fixed on providing “reliable access” to fuel, whereas ElBaradei is looking to give states that meet an apolitical set of nonproliferation criteria an “assurance” of supply. The latter is less subjective and unacceptable to the United States.