Countries Aim for Fuel Bank Endorsement

Daniel Horner

A group of countries led by the United States is working to secure support for a proposed nuclear fuel bank, with the goal of having the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors adopt a resolution endorsing the plan at its next meeting, according to statements from governments and other organizations involved in the process.

In interviews in recent weeks, diplomats and others who are following the situation said supporters of the plan are moving now because they believe that additional time will not help their cause.

Addressing the IAEA General Conference in Vienna Sept. 20, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the United States planned “a common approach” so that the board could approve the plan at its Dec. 2-3 meeting.

The aim of the fuel bank proposal is to dissuade countries from pursuing their own uranium-enrichment programs by providing them with an assured supply of fuel at market prices. The bank, which the IAEA would administer, would serve as a backup to existing commercial mechanisms for countries with good nonproliferation credentials. President Barack Obama has strongly supported the plan, as did President George W. Bush and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei when they were in office.

Under the plan, the IAEA would own enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) for a full core of a typical power reactor, once the LEU was fabricated into reactor fuel.

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 of $50 million from the United States, up to 25 million euros from the European Union, $10 million apiece from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and $5 million from Norway have combined to meet the financial goal, but the board has not endorsed the plan.

In his speech in Vienna, Chu said of the $150 million, “[T]hese resources will be at risk if we do not reach a decision soon.” Several of the sources interviewed cited similar concerns that the governmental pledges, as well as the one from the NTI, might not remain available indefinitely.

In an Oct. 7 interview, Corey Hinderstein, the NTI’s vice president for international programs, declined to say whether the most recent one-year deadline extension would be the last. However, when the NTI receives an extension request from the IAEA, it has to assess the prospects for the fuel bank proposal, she said. If the prospects are seen as unlikely to improve, “then we have to say, ‘What are we waiting for?’” she said.

Improved Chances

A year ago, the IAEA board endorsed a plan for Russia to establish an LEU reserve at the Angarsk site in Siberia. (See ACT, January/February 2010.) The plan garnered support from a sizable majority of the 35-member board, but eight countries (Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, and Venezuela) voted against the plan and three (India, Kenya, and Turkey) abstained. Analysts noted that the dissenters included some of the developing world’s most influential countries.

For most of its history, the IAEA board has made decisions by consensus, although it has varied from that pattern somewhat in recent years.

Since the fuel bank proposal was first raised, members of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) and other developing countries have expressed concerns that participation in the fuel bank arrangement would impede their rights under Article IV of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which gives parties the right to “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and says parties have an “inalienable right” to pursue nuclear energy programs as long as the programs are “in conformity with” the treaty’s nonproliferation restrictions.

Supporters of the fuel bank have repeatedly said the proposal would not infringe on those rights; the board’s Angarsk resolution included language to that effect.

However, Hinderstein said, “some of the no votes on Angarsk were not about the resolution, but about the process.” There was a perception among some of the opponents that the issue was “just put on the table” and that states were told just to say yes or no, she said.

Russia had pressed for a vote, with the support of the United States, sources said.

Countries supporting the resolution are using the time before the December meeting to engage in “real consultations,” Hinderstein said. The supporters have to answer “reasonable questions,” but are not going to be able sway opponents who have deep-seated objections to the basic concept of the fuel bank, she said.

In an Oct. 27 interview, a U.S. official said supporters of the fuel bank will “listen to criticism” and “try to come up with a resolution that will demonstrate we have listened.”

A European diplomat said on Oct. 25 he was not sure the more extensive consultations would really change any countries’ positions but that it was a “fair point” to ask for more time than was available on the Angarsk vote.

Changed Composition

Since the Angarsk vote, the composition of the board has changed, and Hinderstein and others suggested that the new makeup might be more amenable to the fuel bank. The European diplomat said the board transition has resulted in some “more friendly NAM” representation. As an example, he noted the departure of Egypt, which cast one of the eight dissenting votes, and the accession of Jordan.

Another new member of the board is the UAE, which pledged money for the fuel bank.

However, the European diplomat said he did not see the board realignment as a “major driving factor” in the decision to go ahead now. The U.S. official agreed, saying, “The impossibility of consensus is what really drove this.”

The European diplomat also said the notion of consensus is “not completely realistic.” However, he said he expected to see a “large majority” of the board co-sponsor or otherwise support the resolution.

The diplomat and the U.S. official said the resolution was likely to make full-scope safeguards a requirement for recipients of fuel from the bank. Countries that accept full-scope safeguards allow IAEA inspections of all their nuclear facilities.

Amano’s Role

In his brief reference to the fuel bank effort during his Sept. 20 remarks to the General Conference, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said that although there were differences among member states, “there is a convergence of views that the issue needs to be discussed further.” He “encourage[d]” the states “to find suitable ways of dealing with this issue” and said the IAEA Secretariat “stands ready to provide any assistance required.”

In the interviews, the officials and others said the statement reflected the contrast between Amano’s attitude toward the fuel bank and ElBaradei’s. ElBaradei actively supported the plan, but Amano has a more hands-off approach, the sources said.

Amano “does not believe the time is ripe for such an idea” and “seems to be more interested in questions that have to do with the back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle, one source said. According to another source, the secretariat thinks the fuel bank would be a good idea and is willing to provide the necessary technical and legal assistance, but “the member states have to pick up the baton and run with it.”

A third source chose a different metaphor, saying of Amano, “He’s on board, but he’s not driving the train.”