[ RadSafe ] Article: IAEA launches bid to bank nuclear fuel

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Thu Nov 17 09:30:02 CST 2005

>From Nature 438, 268-269 (17 November 2005) 

Atomic agency launches bid to bank nuclear fuel
Jim Giles, London

Abstract: International supply of partly-enriched
uranium could slow proliferation.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has taken a
step towards persuading countries to relinquish
control of their nuclear fuel.

On 7 November, ElBaradei announced that the United
States and Russia have agreed to contribute to an
international fuel bank. The move paves the way for
the first stage in a programme to bring the entire
nuclear-fuel cycle under multilateral control, says
ElBaradei, who, along with his agency, won this year's
Nobel Peace Prize. In theory, the bank will help
dissuade nuclear-hungry nations from developing
facilities to enrich uranium.

Enrichment technology can also be used to develop
weapons-grade material and is at the heart of current
tensions between the IAEA and Iran.

Under the fuel-bank programme, nations that meet
certain security standards, such as observing
non-proliferation treaties, would be guaranteed a
supply of fuel. Non-proliferation experts are
applauding the idea of the bank, but caution that
ElBaradei's long-term aims are unrealistic in today's
political environment.

So far, the United States has said it will supply more
than 17 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, taken from
dismantled nuclear weapons. This will be 'downblended'
to create reactor fuel. Russia has not said how much
it will contribute.

The bank is meant to build confidence in nuclear
security, says Geoff Shaw, policy adviser to ElBaradei
at the IAEA's Geneva headquarters. If IAEA members can
agree to the creation of the bank — perhaps when the
agency's governors meet next March — they could be
open to considering further parts of ElBaradei's
non-proliferation plans, Shaw adds.

But such ambitions are not easy to realize.
ElBaradei's second proposal is a moratorium on the
development of technology for uranium enrichment and
reprocessing, which can be used to recycle nuclear
fuel and create weapons-grade material. Nations with
this ability, such as the United States, Russia,
France and Britain, would be allowed to retain it. But
others would agree not to develop it in the next ten
years, despite the fact that non-proliferation
agreements allow them to do so for civilian purposes.

Sceptics point out that there are few incentives to
sign up to the moratorium. "Are we going to say to
other countries that they have to forgo their right to
develop the fuel cycle?" asks Lawrence Scheinman, a
nuclear-policy expert at the Monterey Institute of
International Studies in Washington DC, and an adviser
to three former US governments.

There are a number of reasons why nations might reject
the moratorium, he says. Uranium suppliers such as
Australia and Canada might find it profitable to
enrich fuel before selling it, for example. Other
countries will want fuel-cycle capability so that they
can at least keep the option of developing weapons.
What would make Iran join the scheme, asks Mark
Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert at the
Institute for International Strategic Studies in
London. "They want enrichment for their nuclear
weapons programme," he alleges.

But if the second stage of ElBaradei's plan is tough,
the third and fourth are truly ambitious. Part three
would bring the reprocessing of spent fuel under
multilateral control, perhaps at a series of dedicated
regional facilities. Finally, existing enrichment
facilities would come under international ownership.
Countries that rely on such facilities to fuel their
nuclear arsenals are extremely unlikely to agree, say
experts. "For the United States, that's a dream," says

He acknowledges that the fuel bank, if it can be made
to work, would be a useful step towards achieving at
least some of ElBaradei's plans. But even supporters
accept that there is a very long diplomatic fight to
come. "No one is naive on this point," says Shaw. "The
longer term will be much more difficult."

"Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."
"John F. Kennedy, U.S. President and former Naval Officer 

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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