Resurrection of ‘atoms for peace’ for the creation of an international uranium bank

Mohammad ElBaradei addresses nuclear fuel bank conference
Igor Kudrik/Bellona

Publish date: September 19, 2006

Written by: Igor Kudrik

VIENNA - This week as nuclear club countries gathered in Vienna to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Atomic Enbergy Agency (IAEA), they breathed new life into a half-century-old idea put forth by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower called 'atoms for peace,' which envisioned the creation of a secure international uranium fuel bank for countries with developed nuclear power.

Under the Eisenhower Administration’s original plan, "the governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, (should) begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency.”

The Eisenhower plan – which was outlined in a 1953 speech by the former president – further recommended that this atomic energy agency be made responsible for impounding, storing and protecting the contributed fissionable material and other materials. The more important responsibility of this agency would be to develop methods by which fissionable material would be allocated “to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind.” The agency would also provide, in Eisenhower’s vision, an abundance of electricity to power-starved areas of the world.

Eisenhower’s speech was, in fact, the inspiration for the creation of the IAEA.

This week, the idea of a uranium bank was dusted off and tabled again for world consideration by members of the IAEA, amid growing concern over nuclear threats from rogue nations that have nuclear energy capabilities.

The idea of a new framework for the world nuclear fuel cycle was summarised by IAEA General Director Mohamed ElBaradei during his introductory speech to the General Conference. The infrastructure would have to establish mechanisms that would assure the supply of fuel for nuclear power plants.

It would also have to develop, as needed, similar assurances for the acquisition of nuclear power reactors. Furthermore, it would have to facilitate the conversion of enrichment and reprocessing facilities from national to multinational facilities, and encourage countries to limit future enrichment and reprocessing to these multinational operations.

These ideas have already been picked up with various levels of urgency by countries that
are researching them. The front-runners are the United States and Russia, whose presidents have during the past year initiated two separate initiatives suggesting the same thing – President George Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and President Vladimir Putin’s so-called Developing Global Nuclear Infrastructure programme. Both initiatives envision a plan to provide fuel and to form an international partnership to reprocess spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in a way that renders the plutonium in it usable for nuclear fuel but not for nuclear weapons.

Many other countries have also expressed interest in an international nuclear fuel bank.

Russia rushing in
The speech delivered by Sergei Kirienko, head of Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, illustrated that Russia was indeed racing to break the finish-line tape, the first stride toward which would be the establishment of a so-called International Enrichment Centre.

Kirienko even named a concrete location for the facility – the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine Federal State Unitary Enterprise (AECC). This is a nuclear facility with experience in the production and enrichment of uranium for applications in making fuel for nuclear power stations. The AECC, located to the southeast of Angarsk, was founded in 1954 and maintains a staff of 6,300.

Kirienko further said that the enrichment centre would be established by the governments of interested states using the form of an intergovernmental agreement. The centre might also be established as a joint venture.

“Any co-founder of the centre would have the right to not only use uranium enrichment services, but also take part in its management, thus having access to the information on its product costs and pricing principles,” the Russian news website KM.RU quoted Kirienko as saying.

“This in turn will ensure transparency of the enriched uranium supplies. Futhermore, co-founders will receive dividends from the income earned on uranium enrichment services.”

Whether the centre is an international entity or a joint venture, the pricing for services wil be consistent with world market rates, Kirienko said. However, there would be no access to the enrichment technology by participants or shareholders.

Kirienko also said that Russia would seek to secure the centre with IAEA safeguards by the end of 2006 and basically begin operation, provided there are a sufficient number of countries willing to participate. He said the Russian centre would be the first step toward creating a system to internationally manage nuclear fuel.

Kirienko failed to mention in his speech if there has been any interest in the International Enrichment Centre by potential clients.

But if, theoretically, there are a sufficient number of clients standing at the centre’s door as of January 1st 2007, and Russia provides them fuel, how would the return of the spent fuel be regulated, and what would be done with the returned spent fuel? The impression left by Kirienko’s presentation was that these issues are far from resolved and would be worked out on the fly.

KM.RU, however, quoted Kirienko as saying; “The Angarsk centre will only be about uranium enrichment. There will be no SNF, no radioactive waste, no radioactive tailings.”

US takes slower, more sober approach
Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the US Department of Energy (DOE), was not in the same hurry as Kirienko was. In contrast to Kirienko, Spurgeon was not categorical about nuclear energy being the only route to future global energy supply stability, and said nuclear power was only part of the solution.

He suggested a new framework be created to avoid separation of nuclear materials that can be used in nuclear weapons. Under Spurgeon’s plan, each state could make its own decision about whether to use internationally supplied fuel services, thus providing states with the alternative of using their own uranium.

The United States is seeking to create an international consortium to build an improved, more proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel cycle, while increasing secure access to nuclear energy for developing counties. Under a leasing approach suggested by the DOE, fuel suppliers would provide fresh fuel to clients – and take back SNF – for their conventional nuclear power plants. These conventional plants could be either existing or next-generation power reactors, like those being developed under the GNEP.

To encourage fuel users to participate, the international constortium must give prospective clients assurances of international fuel supplies backed by consortium-designated suppliers and government entities. Customers, in return, must have adequate safeguards integrated into their reactor designs.

The United States has already committed 17.4 tons of highly enriched uranium that will be blended down to low enriched uranium and used to establish a fuel reserve to back up supply assurances.

Although both Kirienko and Spurgeon mentioned in their speeches that Russia and the US should cooperate on the obviously overlapping proposals, no information was provided about the details of this possible collaboration.

NGO sponsors first fuel bank
Aside from the United States and Russia, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based NGO working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, proposed to sponsor the first fuel bank. Former US Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of NTI, announced today that the NTI is prepared to contribute $50m to the IAEA to help create a low enriched uranium stockpile owned and managed by the IAEA.

Billionaire Warren Buffett, one of NTI’s key advisors, is financially backing and enabling this NTI commitment. NTI envisions that this stockpile will be available as a last-resort fuel reserve for nations that have made the sovereign choice to develop their nuclear energy but have no indigenous enrichment facilities – and thus rely on foreign fuel supply services.

The goal of this proposed initiative is to help make fuel supplies from the international market more secure by offering customer states that are in full compliance with their non-proliferation obligations reliable access to a nuclear fuel reserve under impartial IAEA control should their fuel supply arrangements be disrupted. In so doing, NTI hopes to make a state’s access to this market more secure.

NTI’s contribution to build the fuel bank is contingent on two conditions to be met within the next two years: 1) that the IAEA takes the necessary actions to approve establishment of this reserve, and, 2) that one or more member states contribute an additional $100m in funding or an equivalent value of low enriched uranium to jump-start the reserve. Every other element of the arrangement – its structure, its location, the conditions for access – would be the IAEA and its member states’ responsibility to decide.

Iran looms in the background
It would seem that all of these initiatives have coincided with the West’s stand-off with Iran, which is alleged by many countries to be developing a nuclear weapons programme. Iran has repeatedly denied these allegations and said it is only working to develop civilian nuclear energy.

But as Spurgeon said in his speech, the initiatives will not force countries to start using international fuel supply services, but rather give them an alternative. It is open to speculation whether the alternative will be accepted by countries like Iran and other problematic states, and whether they may decide to embrace ‘atoms for peace.’