IAEA Fuel Bank Advances

Miles A. Pomper

A proposed international nuclear fuel bank took a major step forward March 5 with a $10 million pledge by Kuwait. The pledge meant that international donors exceeded a required $100 million total.

Earlier pledges had come from the United States ($50 million), the European Union (25 million euros), the United Arab Emirates ($10 million), and Norway ($5 million).

The private Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), funded by billionaire Warren Buffet, had required that the $100 million in pledges be in place before it would contribute an additional $50 million to the effort. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei had also said that he would wait until the funds were in place before having the agency secretariat craft a proposed framework for the fuel bank for consideration by the IAEA Board of Governors. At the March IAEA board meeting, ElBaradei said he hoped to submit such a proposed framework for the board's next meeting in June.

He also laid out three principles for an ideal framework. First, he said that the fuel bank mechanism should be nonpolitical, nondiscriminatory, and open to any state in compliance with its IAEA safeguards obligations. Such safeguards are intended to ensure that nuclear material and technology are not diverted from peaceful to military uses.

Second, ElBaradei suggested that any release of the material should be determined by nonpolitical criteria established in advance and applied objectively and consistently.

Finally, he said that "no state should be required to give up its rights under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regarding any part of the nuclear fuel cycle." During the Bush administration, many developing countries chafed at U.S. attempts to write global rules that would block new countries from obtaining proliferation-sensitive uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing technologies, arguing they had a right to such technology under Article IV of the NPT. That article guarantees states access to peaceful nuclear technology if they renounce nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei added that "one part of a possible new framework is to reach agreement that all new enrichment and reprocessing activities should be placed exclusively under multilateral control, to be followed by agreement to convert all existing facilities from national to multilateral control as well."

The NTI and IAEA have championed the proposed fuel bank a means of assuring countries that they do not have to construct uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities in order to guarantee that they have sufficient supplies of nuclear fuel.

It is one of about a dozen such fuel assurance efforts launched by developed countries in the last few years. Indeed, Russia circulated a draft proposal at the March board meeting for a 120-metric-ton low-enriched uranium fuel reserve that it would maintain and make available to IAEA member states under similar circumstances. It is not clear how much interest the potential consuming countries, primarily in the developing world, have in such schemes. Some countries are content to rely solely on the commercial market, while others such as Brazil and Iran appear determined to operate their own enrichment facilities.