Vienna Meeting Airs New Nuclear Fuel Proposals

Article excerpt

Concerns that global tensions over Iran's uranium-enrichment program may be the first in a series of future crises are spurring governments and private organizations from nuclear supplier countries to step forward with new efforts to limit the spread of nuclear fuel-cycle technology. But it is not clear if the steps will be enough to dissuade additional countries from undertaking activities that could potentially provide critical materials for nuclear weapons.

New steps include proposals from Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom and a $50 million commitment from the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Russia and the United States also continue to promote their own proposals. The initiatives were the focus of a special International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting Sept. 19-20 to develop a "new framework" for fuel supply issues and will be considered further by the agency in future months.

Although differing in their particulars, the efforts are aimed at encouraging nonnuclear-weapon states to forgo domestic uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of plutonium in spent nuclear fuel. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) or a mixture of plutonium and uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium can provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Questions about whether Iran's pursuit of enrichment technologies is intended for peaceful or military purposes lie at the heart of the standoff over Tehran's program. (See page 24).

Trying to avoid future problems, the proposals seek to assure the non-nuclear-weapon states that they will be able to import adequate supplies of nuclear fuel.

NTI co-chairman Sam Nunn, for example, said Sept. 19 that billionaire Warren Buffett would provide $50 million to the IAEA to fund "a last-resort fuel reserve for nations that have made the sovereign choice to develop their nuclear energy based on foreign sources of fuel supply services and therefore have no indigenous enrichment facilities." The money would be used to create an LEU stockpile and would be contingent on one or more member states contributing an additional $100 million in funds or an equivalent amount of LEU within two years and on agency member states agreeing on a political framework to manage such a stockpile. To date, however, no member-state has come forward and committed funds toward this project.

Assistant secretary of Energy Dennis Spurgeon told reporters Sept. 19 that the NTI effort would complement a proposal that six nuclear suppliers made to the IAEA Board of Governors in late May. The proposal by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States would seek to establish a "multilateral mechanism for reliable access to nuclear fuel."

U.S. officials have said the voluntary IAEA mechanism would include three basic elements. The IAEA would facilitate new commercial arrangements if a country should find its supply interrupted for reasons other than failure to comply with nonproliferation obligations. Reserves of enriched uranium, held nationally or perhaps by the IAEA, would serve as a fuel reserve of "last resort." The agency would determine eligibility based on a country's compliance with IAEA safeguards and acceptance of nuclear safety standards, as well as the renunciation of "sensitive fuel cycle activities," such as uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing. …