Obama, Russia seek cuts to rid world of nukes – nuke fuel bank part of the process

Publish date: April 5, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

US President Barack Obama Sunday announced an ambitious US arms-control campaign aimed at drastically reducing atomic weapons domestically and eventually eradicating them globally while still recognising developing nations' rights to pursue nuclear power.

As part of this effort, an Obama Administration official said, the United States would support the building of an international nuclear reactor fuel bank in uranium-rich Kazakhstan, which had previously been committed to entering a partnership with Moscow to build such a bank in Angarsk, Russia.

The notion of such a fuel bank is thought to eliminate bids by nations developing nuclear power to develop their own uranium enrichment facilities, which would keep potential rogue states in check – or off the customer list.  

The president said he would convene an international summit in Washington aimed at shrinking the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals. At that meeting, he is likely to propose creating a new international agency to pursue the effort, another senior US official said.

Obama’s announcement of sweeping nuclear arms cuts to a thronging crowd of some 20,000 in Prague, came hours after North Korea launched a multi-stage missile that might be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, an event that was condemned internationally.

"In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up," Obama said.

Burden to cut weapons on US: Obama
As the only country to have ever used a nuclear weapon against another, Obama said the onus was on the United States to eliminate the weapons from use.

"As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act," Obama the crowd. "We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it."

His speech in Prague came as Eastern Europe this year is marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, ending the Cold War that defined American relations with the world for decades.

"The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War," Obama told the crowd. "Today, the Cold War has disappeared, but thousands of those weapons have not."

Russia and US agree to huge cuts – fuel bank may be the price
Sunday’s speech followed a meeting Wednesday between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, where the two leaders committed to conclude a new bilateral treaty that would reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals below the 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads agreed to in 2002.

Obama’s strategy commits the United States to take the lead in reducing its nuclear-weapons stockpile in a bid to gain Russian and Chinese support for curbing the mounting proliferation threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

A senior Obama administration official said Monday that, as part of that effort, the White House has had high-level contact in recent weeks with Kazakhstan to serve as host for a proposed uranium fuel bank.

The White House is seriously considering the offer, and transferring control of the operation to the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Only countries that renounce nuclear weapons and the production of nuclear fuel could take part in the programme, said the official.

Such a fuel bank has been a showcase notion of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, which has received endorsements from the US Congress and the IAEA to pursue a fuel bank.

The Administration official was quick to say that nothing had been finalised with Kazakhstan, which had previously signed on to be Russia’s biggest supplier of uranium for the Russian bank, which Rosatom expects to situate in Angarsk.

"There hasn’t been a final decision by President Obama," the administration official said, "but he is considering Kazakhstan to be the host."

Rosatom officials reached Monday refused to comment on the Obama Administration official’s disclosures on Kazakhstan, but one spokesman said “our plans have not changed as yet.”

No love lost over Angarsk
But Obama’s meetings with Medvedev apparently offered up putting a fuel bank in Kazakhstan – a former Soviet Republic – as a clear sign that the US administration is willing to make compromises to win Russian support for the news arms efforts.

Obama Administration officials said Russia appears ready to be a genuine partner in the effort. At his private meeting with Obama on Wednesday, Medvedev brought up a new effort to strengthen UN Security Council Resolution 1540 establishing legally binding security standards for nuclear facilities – which have been loosely enforced.

Bellona has raised serious questions about a potential fuel bank in Russia, which would not only be dogged by Russia’s poor nuclear security record, but would also impose heavy burdens on the Russian environment. It is unlikely Kazakhstan would fare better.

As envisioned by Russian and the IAEA, such a fuel bank facility would also include storage of spent nuclear fuel from nations that make use of it, as well as long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel currently accruing on site at nuclear reactors around the world.

Disarmament basics ring of campaign promises
In his disarmament strategy, Obama specifically outlined US plans to support treaties banning the production of weapons-grade materials, as well as the testing of atomic weapons, efforts backed by President Bill Clinton but largely ignored by Bush.

Obama said in Prague that his administration is committed "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

"We have to insist: ‘Yes, we can,’" he said, reprising a campaign theme recognizable to a crowd a continent away from his election victory.