IAEA Board Approves Russian Fuel Bank Plan

By Horner, Daniel | Arms Control Today, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview
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IAEA Board Approves Russian Fuel Bank Plan

Horner, Daniel, Arms Control Today

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors has adopted a resolution authorizing Russia to establish a reserve of low-enriched uranium (LEU) as part of an international nonproliferation plan.

In addition to approving the proposed text of an agreement with Russia, the Nov. 27 resolution authorizes the IAEA directorgeneral "to conclude and subsequently implement" agreements with IAEA member states to receive the LEU from the Russian reserve if the countries meet certain basic requirements. According to the resolution, the board does not have to provide "caseby-case" authorization, but the directorgeneral should "keep the Board informed of the progress of individual Agreements" with potential recipient countries. As part of the resolution, the board also approved a "model agreement" with potential recipients of the LEU.

The Nov. 27 approval came with eight dissenting votes and three abstentions among the 35-member board, a Vienna-based diplomat said in a Dec. 14 interview. The board traditionally reaches decisions by consensus; the vote tallies are not made public.

The Russian proposal is one of several variants of the concept of an international fuel bank, which aims to give countries an attractive alternative to indigenous uranium-enrichment programs by providing an assured supply of fuel at market prices. The bank would serve as a backup to existing commercial mechanisms for countries with good nonproliferation credentials.

The concept has been strongly supported by Mohamed ElBaradei, who was the IAEA's director-general until Dec. 1; President Barack Obama; and others. But the concept faced resistance, particularly from some key members of the Nonaligned Movement.

As a result, the Russian proposal and another fuel bank plan, from the private, U.S.based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), did not get a go-ahead from the board when they were considered in June, and efforts to resolve the issue made little progress before the September board meeting. (See ACT, October 2009.)

At the November board meeting, Russia requested a vote on its proposal, the diplomat said. The eight dissenting votes came from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, and Venezuela, he said; India, Kenya, and Turkey abstained. Azerbaijan was absent, but later said it would have voted in favor of the proposal, he added.

The other current members of the board are Afghanistan, Australia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Mongolia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay.

The countries that did not support the resolution said they were concerned that the arrangement could "erode their Article 4 rights," the diplomat said. He was referring to Article 4 of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which gives parties the right to "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy" and says parties have an "inalienable right" to pursue nuclear energy programs as long as the programs are "in conformity with" the treaty's nonproliferation restrictions.

The board resolution says that those rights "will in no way be affected" by the Russian initiative.

The IAEA-Russian agreement says Russia will "establish a guaranteed physical reserve" of 120 metric tons of LEU in the form of uranium hexafluoride. When fabricated into reactor fuel, that amount of material would provide enough fuel for a typical power reactor to operate for several years.

The agreement names the International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk as the "executive authority." The center is a Russian commercial enrichment venture with investments from other countries. The fuel reserve would be located on the Angarsk site in Siberia, in an area separate from the enrichment plant, the diplomat said.

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