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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Vienna Meeting Airs New Nuclear Fuel Proposals
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Miles A. Pomper

Concerns that global tensions over Iran’s uranium-enrichment program may be the first in a series of future crises are spurring governments and private organizations from nuclear supplier countries to step forward with new efforts to limit the spread of nuclear fuel-cycle technology. But it is not clear if the steps will be enough to dissuade additional countries from undertaking activities that could potentially provide critical materials for nuclear weapons.

New steps include proposals from Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom and a $50 million commitment from the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Russia and the United States also continue to promote their own proposals. The initiatives were the focus of a special International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting Sept. 19-20 to develop a “new framework” for fuel supply issues and will be considered further by the agency in future months.

Although differing in their particulars, the efforts are aimed at encouraging non-nuclear-weapon states to forgo domestic uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of plutonium in spent nuclear fuel. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) or a mixture of plutonium and uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium can provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Questions about whether Iran’s pursuit of enrichment technologies is intended for peaceful or military purposes lie at the heart of the standoff over Tehran’s program.

Trying to avoid future problems, the proposals seek to assure the non-nuclear-weapon states that they will be able to import adequate supplies of nuclear fuel.

NTI co-chairman Sam Nunn, for example, said Sept. 19 that billionaire Warren Buffett would provide $50 million to the IAEA to fund “a last-resort fuel reserve for nations that have made the sovereign choice to develop their nuclear energy based on foreign sources of fuel supply services and therefore have no indigenous enrichment facilities.” The money would be used to create an LEU stockpile and would be contingent on one or more member states contributing an additional $100 million in funds or an equivalent amount of LEU within two years and on agency member states agreeing on a political framework to manage such a stockpile. To date, however, no member-state has come forward and committed funds toward this project.

Assistant Secretary of Energy Dennis Spurgeon told reporters Sept. 19 that the NTI effort would complement a proposal that six nuclear suppliers made to the IAEA Board of Governors in late May. The proposal by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States would seek to establish a “multilateral mechanism for reliable access to nuclear fuel.”

U.S. officials have said 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 nonproliferation 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. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

In a related effort, the United States last year pledged to convert more than 17 tons of HEU into LEU for a fuel reserve. Spurgeon said that uranium would have a market value of more than $500 million but also made clear that none of this material would be placed under multilateral control.

Russia has pledged to establish a system of international centers that would produce and provide nuclear fuel under IAEA safeguards. Russian officials have claimed that the first such center in Siberia would be ready for operation next year. For the past year, Russia has sought to encourage Iran to enrich its fuel at such a center, but Tehran rebuffed the offer after showing initial interests.

In a Sept. 18 interview with the German business daily Handelsblatt, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier chimed in with a proposal for establishing a multinational uranium-enrichment facility under IAEA supervision.

“A multilaterization of the nuclear cycle is necessary in order to avoid similar developments in newly industrializing countries like Iran and strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT),” Steinmeier told the paper.

“There have to be international supply guarantees for the nuclear fuel. This could replace the wish for having your own uranium-enrichment facilities. It could be financed by countries which claim the right to buy nuclear fuel,” he added. Many of the details of this proposal remain unclear.

Still, the moves may not be enough. According to news reports, several countries have recently expressed an interest in building their first uranium-enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa.

Developing countries in particular are jealously guarding what they view as their right to such technologies. The NPT’s basic bargain calls for states to have access to nuclear fuels and technologies for peaceful purposes in return for renouncing nuclear weapons.

For example, at the Vienna gathering, Buyelwa Sonjica, South Africa’s minister of minerals and energy, said that any framework on access to nuclear fuel “should not involve any preconditions that would even hint” at forgoing their “inalienable right to nuclear energy” under the NPT. “We should guard against the notion that sensitive technologies are safe in the hands of some but pose a risk in the hands of others,” she said. “States that may decide to pursue domestic sensitive fuel-cycle activities for peaceful purposes and in conformity with legal obligations should not be discriminated against by excluding them from possible benefits that may derive from such mechanisms,” Sonjica added.