IAEA, Congress Tackle Nuclear Fuel Supply

By Meier, Oliver; Pomper, Miles A. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

IAEA, Congress Tackle Nuclear Fuel Supply


Meier, Oliver, Pomper, Miles A., Arms Control Today


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei June 13 presented the agency's Board of Governors with a report outlining ways countries might work together to discourage the spread of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities. The report came as the standoff over Iran's nuclear program (see page 26) and increased interest in nuclear energy have prompted growing concern, including in Congress, about the spread of such facilities that could provide either fuel for power plants or fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The text of the report was not publicly released, reportedly because some board members objected to doing so. Nonetheless, knowledgeable sources said the report, written by IAEA staff, evaluates the legal, technical, financial, and institutional aspects associated with the problem, analyzing nearly a dozen proposals for multilateral cooperation put forward by IAEA member states, many at a special, two-day agency conference in September 2006. (See ACT, November 2006.) But the sources said the report does not advocate any particular plan for moving forward and leaves the thorniest issues for the states on the IAEA board to resolve.

The proposals outlined in the report essentially fall into three camps: reliance on the international market, backup commitments by individual states, and the establishment of a last-resort facility under the auspices of the IAEA. All are intended to convince countries to rely on the international market rather than national facilities to enrich uranium or to extract plutonium for spent nuclear fuel. In his June 11 statement to the board, ElBaradei essentially argued that all of the mechanisms could complement each other, calling for "an incremental approach, with multiple assurances in place." In doing so, he stuck to a theme that he has embraced since receiving an IAEA expert group report in February 2005, which evaluated several steps toward a multilateral solution of the problem. (See ACT, March 2005.)

According to a June 15 IAEA press release, the report argues for moving toward a multilateral framework by creating mechanisms that would "assure the supply of fuel for nuclear power plants; over time, convert enrichment and reprocessing facilities from national to multilateral operations"; and "limit future enrichment and reprocessing to multilateral operations."

The debate on how to prevent the spread of sensitive nuclear technology by limiting the construction of national nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities in additional states has gained new urgency since President George W. Bush in February 2004 proposed to limit supply of such technologies to states that already have such capabilities. (See AC7; March 2004.) Efforts to get the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to endorse such proposals permanently have languished, although the NSG has since approved annual moratoria on initiating any new agreements along these lines. Several developing countries, however, have criticized this approach as discriminatory, arguing that it institutionalizes a new cartel of technology holders. In particular, they say that it would infringe on their rights under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for access to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The agency says its proposals would not limit the right of states-parties to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and maintains that states would remain "free to choose their fuel options." But it left important details to the IAEA board. For example, the board would still have to decide whether to limit supply assurances to countries that do not operate enrichment and reprocessing facilities or who renounce such an option. It would also have to decide whether it would require any potential recipients to have in place an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement. Such protocols provide the agency with greater authority to search for undeclared nuclear activities.

A June 8 statement from the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, provides some indications of a possible board response. …

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