Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 18:52 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 18:52 | SYDNEY

The proliferation of the fuel bank begins


Fiona Cunningham

3 December 2010 12:13

Russia announced on Wednesday that its nuclear fuel bank in Angarsk is now operational, under IAEA oversight. With enough low-enriched uranium to sustain two nuclear reactors for a year, the bank will supply nuclear fuel to countries with a good proliferation record who lose access to their regular fuel supply and make a request to the IAEA, which will then be passed on to the Russians to be fulfilled.

The international community is, however, far from agreement on whether such fuel banks are a good thing — the Angarsk arrangements were narrowly passed by the IAEA Board of Governors last November, and plans for a second repository funded by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), US, EU, Kuwait, Norway and the UAE were delayed when the Board could not agree on details of the plan. The NTI plan is likely to be put to a vote at the last meeting of the Board for this year, and NTI is confident it will be passed despite continuing opposition from Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)countries.

Time is of the essence here — as Mark Hibbs points out, the window of opportunity to pass the NTI proposal may close as political divisions in the Board are entrenched (as foreshadowed in the September meeting) and time-limited funding pledges expire. Some NAM countries staunchly oppose such fuel banks because they perceive that their rights to develop an enrichment capability for peaceful purposes under the NPT may be narrowed.

While fuel banks in the model implemented by the Russians and proposed by NTI would do little to counter the Iranian and recently revealed North Korean enrichment programs, they start the ball rolling towards increasing multilateral control of the nuclear fuel cycle that could have a real effect on the spread of enrichment technology.

Multilateral enrichment facilities make sense from both an economic and nonproliferation perspective, and all multilateral fuel cycle initiatives, including fuel banks, are designed to reduce the energy security imperative for a country to develop its own enrichment capability. The Russian fuel bank is a welcome addition to the nonproliferation architecture, as it not only reduces the political risk of relying on the global uranium market, but also increases the burden of proof on countries developing an enrichment capability to show that it is destined for peaceful purposes.

The Nuclear Reactions column is supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, as part of a wider partnership between the NSP and the Lowy Institute.

Photo by Flickr user Vattenfall.