UN to consider Russia-based uranium fuel bank – despite environmental worries and vague proliferation protection

Publish date: September 18, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK - The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the UN nuclear watchdog -could consider Russia's plans to establish a uranium nuclear fuel bank in Siberia during the first half of 2008, Russia's nuclear chief said after meeting with the IAEA head Tuesday.

"We should carry out the preparatory work required for IAEA director general (Mohamed ElBaradei) to propose to the IAEA Board of Governors that they consider Russia’s plans for establishing guaranteed nuclear fuel reserves in the first half of 2008," Sergei Kiriyenko said in remarks reported by the RIA Novosti Russian news agency.

Addressing the 51st International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference, earlier in the day, Kiriyenko said Russia planned to create guaranteed reserves of low-enriched uranium worth up to $300 million at an international nuclear center in Angarsk, East Siberia.

"Russia intends to establish guaranteed reserves of up to two loads of nuclear fuel (low-enriched uranium) for a 1,000MW reactor," Kiriyenko said, adding that a fuel load of slightly more than 80 metric tons for a pressurized water reactor costs some $150 million.

The Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex in Angrask, Siberia is a regional economic mainstay and will be the main asset of the so-called International Uranium Enrichment Centre, which is completing its registration with the IAEA.

But aside from threatening to cause untold environmental damage to sensitive Siberian lands and waters, the Centre also offers only vague nonproliferation protections, as implied by Kiriyenko himself.

Nonproliferation or profit?
Kiriyenko said the centre had been established to supply enriched uranium to third countries planning to develop nuclear energy and get access to uranium enrichment "with no political restrictions."

But placing political restrictions on the customer base has been, at least as far as the United States is concerned, the primary benefit of the Centre.

Originally envisioned as a joint Russian-Kazakhstan venture, the nuclear fuel bank has received preliminary nods from both the United States and the IAEA. It would thus be able to restrict uranium sales to exclude “rogue nations.”

John Rood, assistant US secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told reporters that the United States, “supports Russia’s initiative with Kazakhstan government support on the Angarsk International Uranium Enrichment Centre which will be open for many countries" according to the US State Department website.

"A balanced search between the problem of a reliable atomic power-plant fuel supply and a nuclear weapons non-proliferation solution is very hard task, and we think that the prospective Angarsk centre is very practical means, proposed by Russia and Kazakhstan, for such a balanced search," he said.

Kiriyenko pledged that Russia would do its best to prevent the amount of low-enriched uranium from "exploding the market from the economic point of view," the RIA Novosti reported. He said the IAEA Board of Governors should offer criteria for supplying fuel from the reserves.

Hobbling ‘rogue nations’
The main target for Washington with its endorsement of the Centre is Iran, for which Russia is building a $1 billion nuclear reactor in the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr. Apparently bowing to western pressures, Russia has put off fuel shipments and stalled the start date of the reactor until next year.

But the Russian attitude toward a nuclear Iran is ambiguous at best. Bushehr will ensure that Russia has a steady foreign customer for uranium. Moscow has further promised in the past that it would build more nuclear reactors in Iran – something that runs directly contrary to sanctions being weighed by the UN Security Council, which is working to secure a diplomatic solution to the Iran problem.

Tehran refuses to stop uranium enrichment, and Washington has all but promised a military response to Tehran’s ongoing nuclear efforts, which America says are part of a nuclear weapons programme. Either outcome would suit Moscow fine: If Iran stops enriching uranium, Moscow has a steady uranium fuel customer. If, on the other hand, Iran’s nuclear installations are attacked by the West, Middle Eastern oil reserves will be blockaded in the Persian Gulf, making Russia the west’s only oil merchant.

Russia will also – as the builder of Bushehr – likely gain lucrative reconstruction contracts from the Islamic Republic.

Environmental concerns
But even more pressing environmental concerns lay ahead for Russia should the project press forward with the Angarsk International Uranium Enrichment Centre.

Environmentalists have warned sternly that the construction and operation of the plant – to be located 30 kilometres from the Siberian city of Irkutsk and 100 kilometres from Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake – will inevitably bring yet more nuclear woes for Russia: As Russia will produce uranium fuel for a number of nations, so, too, will it be obligated to reclaim the spent nuclear fuel once it is burned in foreign reactors – especially for those countries that have little to no nuclear storage space of their own.

At present, no satisfactory long-term storage scheme for storing spent nuclear fuel has been developed by any country. This is especially pressing for Russia, which has upwards of 15,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in interim storage.

But radwaste concerns are not the jurisdiction of the United States, which, admission of one US State Department official, is grasping at the most immediate nonproliferation effort to control who has access to fuel.

“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.

IAEA to visit site in October

The words of Kiriyenko offer no more assurances for the environment than do the US State Department, and according to him, final approval from the IAEA is merely a formality – and that Russia’s concerns lie more on the economics of a uranium boom-town.

Kiriyenko said the international centre would handle the storage of low-enriched uranium reserves. He said the reserves would be under the IAEA’ s control and could be supplied where necessary upon the international nuclear body’s request.

"We expect a new group of IAEA officials to arrive in mid-October to discuss practical steps towards establishing cooperation in the sphere," Kiriyenko said, according to RIA Novosti.