US Congress pledges $50m to international uranium fuel bank – but what will this cost Russia’s environment?

frontpageingressimage_wh.jpeg Photo: Bellona

The bill, passed by voice vote on the House floor earlier this week, will provided a matching grant to the $50 m staked by the Washington-based non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) headed by CNN founder Ted Turner, and former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn – co-author with current Indiana
republican Senator Richard Lugar – of the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme, or Nunn-Lugar act for nuclear remediation in Russia. Billionaire Warren Buffet is financially backing the NTI pledge.

The bill gives the president the authority to make voluntary contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would set up a nuclear fuel bank for qualifying countries, especially those that wish to produce nuclear power but decide not to build their own nuclear fuel cycle capabilities.

Bank reduces global proliferation risks but raises local nuke hazards

The House also early this week endorsed building an international uranium enrichment centre to be located in Angarsk, Russia, which will be co-run by Russian nuclear authorities and natural uranium suppliers from Kazakhstan. A timeline for the centre’s completion has yet to be announced, but Russia’s federal atomic energy oversight agency, Rosatom, lobbied the IAEA hard to have the centre placed in Russia.

While taking aim squarely at the perceived menace of a nuclear Iran, however, the House bill and its endorsement of the centre’s location – and Rosatom’s unflagging efforts to have it situated there – fail to recognise the dissatisfaction of Angarsk’s residents, who have spoken up clearly against the construction of the centre.

Russia had been promised by Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko in 2006 that there would be no further construction of nuclear sites if local populations objected. Now, some 40 reactors, plus the international enrichment facility, are planned for Russia over the next several years.

Congress satisfied
Responding to the passage of the $50m package from the United states to the IAEA toward the funding of such a bank, California Democratic Representative Tom lantos, who is also chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "This bill is a dramatic step forward in the epic struggle to contain the spread of nuclear arms around the globe," in remarks reported by the Associated Press. He added that it would "expose the subterfuge that we know Iran is perpetrating in order to further its nuclear weapons pursuit."

Iran has cited the potentially unreliable international supply of nuclear reactor fuel in justifying its development of uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing capability – it’s first reactor, built by Russia in the port town of Bushehr, is expected to come online later this year. Iran’s programme would also allow it to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons.

While aimed at Iran, the bill would also bar the Tehran government from participating in the fuel bank as long as it is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The birth of the idea of an international fuel bank

The idea of an international fuel bank would allow international agencies like the IAEA and participating countries to reign in Iran’s nuclear ambitions – which have grown considerably in the last few months. By the latest estimates, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said Iran could have as many as 8,000 uranium centrifuges in operation by the end of this month – up from his previous estimate last week of 3,000.

The idea of such a fuel bank, however, was initially floated by former US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. 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 speech was also the impetus for the founding of the IAEA. The responsibility of the agency envisioned by the Eisenhower plan 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.

The plan again surfaced at September’s 50th anniversary celebration of the IAEA, during which ElBaradei summarized a new framework for the world nuclear fuel cycle, with an infrastructure that would establish mechanisms to assure fuel supplies for nuclear power plants.

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

Angarsk vs. global nonproiferation
The current International Enrichment Centre slated for construction in Angarsk, Russia, would fulfill, with the endorsement and oversight of the IAEA, global uranium fuel needs, thus reducing the chances that rogue nations would develop nuclear energy programmes of their own – a nightmare the West is living now with Iran, whose nuclear programme is developing by leaps and bounds despite three rounds of sanctions imposed against the nation by the United Nations Security Council.

If, diplomats told Bellona Web, Iran agreed to buy its fuel from the international centre instead of enriching its own, it would go a long way toward defusing international tensions, which have escalated to threats of military intervention from the united States and Israel.

But the Islamic Republic remains steadfast in its refusal to stop enrichment under any circumstances – even war, which many in the State Department of Condoleezza Rice think would do little to cripple Iran’s capability to pick up the pieces and restart its enrichment programme, according to officials interviewed by Bellona Web.

With little chance of Iran availing itself of the International Enrichment Centre – if indeed the international community would allow it to participate – the construction of the centre therefore begs a critical environmental question for Russia: what will it do with all the spent fuel that is returned to it from customer nations who do not have spent nuclear storage facilities of their own?

At present, Russia is home to 15,000 tons and counting of spent nuclear fuel from civilian reactors that is nowhere close to being stored safely. Indeed no country in the world has yet solved the problem of a long-term repository for radioactive waste, as witness the constant set backs at the Yucca Mountain geological waste repository under construction in Nevada.

Russia would therefore bear the burden of repatriating the uranium bank fuel its own territory, something residents of Angarsk and environmentalists in Russia say is unacceptable.

But Rosatom sees only the cash crop such a centre would bring, and has plans to reinvest that money not in nuclear safety or nonproliferation projects, but in other proliferation hazardous nuclear endeavors, such as the development of floating nuclear power plants.

US taking a short view of environmental difficulties

The United States, in its endorsement of the international centre in Russia, also takes the short view of the environmental problems it will compound for the Russian state.

After an official endorsement of the centre by Assistant US Secretary of State for international Security and Nonproliferation John Rood during a visit last week to Astana, Kazakhstan, State Department officials interviewed by Bellona Web gave the environmental dangers the short shrift.

“The United States has endorsed the centre to minimise nuclear proliferation risks,” said a State Department official who asked not to be named because he is not allowed to discuss the subject publicly.

“It is hoped that the Russians can deal with any associated environmental risks – this is, in essence, a political endorsement of the idea,” said the official last week.

Charles Digges