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Expert Group Meeting on Control of Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Bruno Pellaud

The expert group meeting was chaired by Mr. Bruno Pellaud (centre) of Switzerland, who was formerly Deputy Director General of the IAEA Department of Safeguards. (Photo Credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

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Given the emerging threats to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, it is time to consider possible multilateral approaches to better control sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle - that is, uranium enrichment and plutonium separation - Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, told the inaugural meeting of an international expert group assembled to study the issue.

The meeting of 23 experts follows the Director General´s suggestion to the IAEA´s General Conference in 2003 that wide dissemination of the most proliferation sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle could be the Achilles heel of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The renewed interest in international cooperation on nuclear issues provides an impetus to the possible evolution of the regime to fit 21st century realities, the Director General said. The task of the expert group is to build upon past efforts, which started with the Baruch Plan of 1946 and included more recent efforts undertaken during the period of the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s. The group has been asked to report its findings to the Director General by the spring of 2005.

Dr. ElBaradei said that in recent years the nuclear non-proliferation regime has been under tremendous stress as a result of the growth in both supply and demand for technology related to nuclear weapons and the production of associated nuclear materials. The world has learned that nuclear technology and know-how is no longer confined to a few countries, and that there exist illicit international supply networks in nuclear equipment, expertise and material, which have proved capable of supporting the clandestine efforts of a number of States within the NPT. Furthermore, sub-State groups have expressed clear interest in acquiring nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Dr. ElBaradei suggested that multilateral control of sensitive parts of the fuel cycle should be given new consideration, in light of several new developments. With regard to the spread of technology, he noted that the traditional means of controlling the use of nuclear technology had been challenged. Enrichment technology has in some cases been passed to the private sector, and an increasing number of countries are now developing capabilities. In addition, it is clear that existing export controls are no longer sufficient and need to be made binding and universal.

In addition, the Agency´s safeguards nuclear verification system has also been challenged by the rapid spread of nuclear technology and knowledge. The Director General stated that while the Additional Protocol to safeguards agreements has strengthened the Agency´s ability to carry out its verification mandate, nuclear verification remains inherently complicated and difficult - and it cannot provide absolute guarantees.

At the outset of the study, Dr. ElBaradei asked the group to be mindful of the importance of their work and its potential to have a positive impact on the international security front. He said that the group must be aware of the perceptions and expectations of all interested stakeholders, and that to be successful new approaches must go beyond the outright denial of technology. The study should serve to support decision making in government and industry by providing:

  1. a clear baseline of agreed factual information;
  2. an initial analysis of the most promising institutional and technical approaches;
  3. an overview of possible options and the associated legal, security, economic and technological incentives and disincentives; and
  4. possible avenues for attracting any necessary financial investment.

The Director General noted the importance of examining multilateral options with respect to both the front end and the back end of the fuel cycle, noting that any solution must be inclusive and without reference to so-called "good" and "bad" countries. He asked the group to not confine itself to finding "one-size-fits-all approaches"; what works in one region may not be the most ideal approach in another. The key, he said, is fairness and recognizing the interests of all parties.

Dr. ElBaradei said that there are three areas of vital importance: the first being how to guarantee the supply of fuel for nuclear generated electricity; the second, how to set up one or more international repositories for spent nuclear fuel; and the third, how to bring about multilateral oversight for sensitive parts of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, namely uranium enrichment and reprocessing. The latter might be the most difficult - but any progress the group could make towards identifying a possible approach would be most welcome. Dr. ElBaradei suggested that the group might want to devote its initial attention to the first two issues.

The Director General noted that sanctions have not proven to be a workable solution, and in many cases simply serve as a catalyst for clandestine nuclear programmes. He suggested that a solution to the problem of assurances of supply would help take away the economic and national self-sufficiency arguments, and would obviate the need for every State to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle. He added that, under its Statute, the Agency might be able to facilitate the provision of international guarantees in this area.

Dr. ElBaradei closed by noting that success would not be entirely within the exclusive control of the group itself. The adoption or implementation of their recommendations could also depend upon progress being made on other related fronts - for example, progress in nuclear disarmament, and in particular progress towards the conclusion of an internationally verified fissile material cut-off treaty, banning the production of enriched uranium and separated plutonium for nuclear weapons, a treaty that has been called for in numerous United Nations General Assembly resolutions adopted unanimously since 1993. But the stakes of success for the group are very high; a lack of progress in confronting the growing risk of nuclear proliferation, in Dr. ElBaradei's words, "could lead to self-destruction".

The expert group concluded its inaugural meeting on Friday September 3 and will meet again towards the end of October.