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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
IAEA, Leading Nations Push for Fuel Assurances

Miles A. Pomper

High-level delegations from 140 countries will meet in Vienna Sept. 19-20 in an attempt to encourage countries to forgo two critical technologies that could lead to nuclear weapons while ensuring that they receive civilian nuclear fuel. The effort comes as several countries with advanced civilian nuclear programs, including the United States, have put forward their own suggestions on the matter.

The meeting, which is to be held at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) headquarters as part of its annual general conference, is designed to develop a “new framework” that would encourage countries to renounce uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing capabilities. These technologies are used to produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but can also be used to make fissile material—highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—for nuclear weapons.

The dual-use nature of these technologies has become a critical sticking point in the current dispute over Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. Iran says it needs to produce its own fuel for its civilian nuclear program in order to hedge against cutoffs in foreign supply, but the United States and its allies have alleged that Iran is developing enrichment facilities to provide material for nuclear weapons.

A June 14 press release from the IAEA said that the objective of the two-day event is to focus on “‘assurances of supply and assurances of non-proliferation’ and on identifying the next steps for the near-to-mid-term.”

The announcement came soon after IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the IAEA Board of Governors June 12 that the six nations that now provide the bulk of enriched uranium—France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—had sent the board a communication entitled “Concept for a Multilateral Mechanism for Reliable Access to Nuclear Fuel.”

A European diplomat said that the May 31 communication was intended to open a discussion with potential recipients of nuclear fuel about how a possible series of overlapping fuel-supply assurances might convince potential fuel customers that they do not need to possess enrichment technology themselves. Countries are permitted such technologies under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Gregory L. Schulte, U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA, told Arms Control Today June 7 that the six countries had “put together a basic set of reliable fuel supply [proposals] that would be implemented by the IAEA and that would be available to countries who have chosen not to have enrichment capabilities.” Schulte said the states planned to brief the agency’s 35-member Board of Governors about their plans at a June 12-16 meeting.

According to a late June fact sheet from the U.S. mission, the voluntary IAEA mechanism would include three basic elements. The IAEA would facilitate new commercial arrangements if a country should find its supply interrupted for reasons other than failure to comply with non-proliferation obligations. Reserves of enriched uranium, held nationally or perhaps by the IAEA, would serve as a fuel reserve of “last resort.” The agency would determine eligibility based on a country’s compliance with IAEA safeguards, and acceptance of nuclear safety standards, as well as the renunciation of “sensitive fuel cycle activities,” such as uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing.

Schulte said the six countries hoped the IAEA would take these ideas and develop a more detailed plan in time for a September board meeting, which would take place shortly before the broader two-day forum.

The objective, Schulte said, was not to interfere in the civilian market for nuclear fuel but to “put in these basic assurances for countries who worry that for some reason the market might fail them…. The goal is to have the mechanism be sufficiently diverse so that if there were an issue with one supplier, that the IAEA would be in a position where it could facilitate supply from another country.”

The proposal follows an initiative first announced by Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman at last year’s IAEA general conference. Under that proposal, the United States said that it planned 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. Under the U.S. proposal, the United States would retain ownership of this fuel rather than placing it under multilateral control. That means that, unlike a true fuel bank, Congress could then intervene and pass laws restricting how the fuel reserve would operate. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Russia has also expressed a willingness to provide fuel supply assurances through such initiatives as a proposed multilateral fuel center in Russia. Additionally, the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative has offered to fund efforts to establish a multilateral fuel bank. Their efforts follow a February 2005 report by an international experts group appointed by ElBaradei. That group outlined five different methods that might be used to provide multilateral fuel-supply assurances. (See ACT, March 2005.)

“To my mind, an assurance of supply mechanism is key to coping with an expanded use of nuclear energy, and is a prerequisite for stemming the spread of sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities,” ElBaradei told the IAEA board.