Kazakhstan Approved as Fuel Bank Site

July/August 2015

By Daniel Horner

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors on June 11 voted to approve an agreement with Kazakhstan under which the Central Asian country would host a nuclear fuel bank that the agency is planning to establish, the IAEA announced in a statement after the vote.

The board also approved a transport agreement with Russia for the low-enriched uranium (LEU) that the bank would hold. The bank would be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in northeastern Kazakhstan.

The bank will house up to 90 metric tons of LEU, enough material to fuel a light-water reactor with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts electric, according to the IAEA. 

The board authorized the establishment of the bank in December 2010. (See ACT, January/February 2011.) In 2011, Kazakhstan officially offered to host the bank. Since then, Kazakhstan and the agency “have been working on technical details” and negotiating the necessary agreements, the IAEA said in its June 11 release. Kazakhstan will operate the bank, but the IAEA will own and control it, the release said.

In a memo issued in January 2010, the IAEA Secretariat said the bank is “designed to be used rarely.” As in other versions of the fuel bank concept, developed by individual countries, the IAEA fuel bank is intended to be a “last resort” in case of a disruption in the international fuel market. As it has previously, the agency emphasized in the press release that the fuel bank “must not distort the commercial market.”

The initial impetus for the IAEA fuel bank came from the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative, which in 2006 pledged $50 million for the bank on the condition that other sources provide $100 million. Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the European Union combined to supply the necessary funds. 

The NTI hailed the recent vote by the IAEA board. In a June 11 press release, NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn said the bank gives countries an alternative to pursuing uranium-enrichment programs.

The U.S. State Department’s press office said on June 12 that the IAEA fuel bank would support U.S. nonproliferation policies “by reducing incentives for the spread of sensitive technologies to new countries.” The statement commended Kazakhstan for the leadership it showed by offering to host the bank.

Some of the early versions of fuel bank proposals required countries to forgo indigenous enrichment programs in order to be eligible to receive material from a fuel bank, an approach that led to objections from many of the potential developing-country recipients. The IAEA has repeatedly stressed that it is not taking such an approach. The existence of the fuel bank “does not affect the rights of IAEA Member States to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle facilities,” the agency’s press release says.