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2006/15

IAEA Seeks Guarantees of Nuclear Fuel

15 September 2006 | The world´s top nuclear experts and delegates from 140 countries are meeting in Vienna next week to consider proposals to guarantee countries´ supplies of nuclear fuel, the essential ingredient for nuclear power generation. The meeting, scheduled from 19-21 September, 2006 at the Austria Center, is open to the press. A nuclear "fuel bank" - where the IAEA administers a nuclear fuel reserve - is among the proposals. A fuel reserve would assure a back-up supply for power reactors throughout the world on a non-discriminatory, non-political basis reducing the need for countries to develop their own uranium enrichment technologies at a time when concerns about nuclear proliferation are growing. Most government and industry experts agree that the commercial fuel market functions well in meeting current demand. Since this would be a back-up or reserve mechanism, it would be designed inherently in a way not to disrupt the existing commercial market in nuclear fuels. "I want to make sure that every country that is a bona fide user of nuclear energy, and that is fulfilling its non-proliferation obligations, is getting fuel," said IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. "It is not asking any State to give up its rights under NPT." The "special event", held during the IAEA´s 50th General Conference, entitled New Framework for the Utilization of Nuclear Energy: Assurances of Supply and Non-Proliferation, will develop recommendations for the establishment of assurance of nuclear fuel supply that is equitable and accessible to all users of nuclear energy for consideration of IAEA Member States. Chaired by Charles Curtis of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), keynote speakers include IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei; Director of the Russian Federal Nuclear Agency Sergei Kirienko; US Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman; Chairman of AREVA´s executive board, Anne Lauvergeon; former US Senator and NTI Co-Chairman, Sam Nunn; Annalisa Giannella on behalf of the EU High Representative Javier Solana; and Chair of The Eisenhower Institute, Susan Eisenhower. "The importance of this step is that, by providing reliable access to fuel at competitive market prices, we remove the need for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. In so doing, we could go a long way towards addressing current concerns about the dissemination of sensitive fuel cycle technologies," Dr. ElBaradei said. Senator Nunn will hold a press conference on Tuesday, 19 September at 13:00 at the Austria Center. Both Russia and the US have announced their willingness to make nuclear material available for a fuel bank under such a scheme. An IAEA-administered fuel bank was a key proposal made by an IAEA Expert Group in 2005, tasked with finding options both to improve controls over fuel enrichment and reprocessing, while ensuring access to nuclear fuel for electricity generation. Proposals on the Table Alongside the proposed IAEA fuel bank, several alternative and potentially complementary concepts are being presented by States, groups of States and industry experts:

  • Russia´s President Vladimir Putin has supported the creation of a system of international centres under a "Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure (GNPI)" to provide nuclear fuel cycle services, including uranium enrichment, on a non-discriminatory basis and under the supervision of the IAEA.
  • The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is advocated by the US through which the US and international partners would develop a fuel services programme to supply developing nations with reliable access to nuclear fuel in exchange for a commitment to forego the development of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies.
  • The World Nuclear Association has tabled a report, Ensuring Security of Supply of the International Fuel Cycle representing the position of a 28-member panel of nuclear industry experts, including the world´s four leading uranium enrichment companies.
  • An intergovernmental working group comprised of six countries with commercial enrichment activities has, under U.S. leadership, tabled a proposal to address the assurance of fuel supply issue through a multilateral mechanism.
  • Japan has proposed to establish a system called the "IAEA Standby Arrangements System for the Assurance of Nuclear Fuel Supply" under the auspices of the IAEA, which incorporates both an information system to contribute to the prevention of the occurrence of market failure and the back-up feature for supply assurance proposed in the six-country proposal above.
  • The Nuclear Threat Initiative is proposing to set up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium, under the Agency´s auspices, to serve as a last-resort fuel reserve for countries that have elected not to build a national uranium enrichment programme.
Sam Nunn, co-chairman of NTI and former US Senator, will announce the details at the Special Event on Tuesday morning, 19 September. Why action is needed now: Civilian nuclear power is expanding to meet growing demand for electricity as existing supplies of electric power are threatened by soaring prices for natural gas and oil, concerns about air pollution, and the challenge of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Already, some 30 countries around the world utilize nuclear power; while some 10 countries have mastered the technical challenge of enriching uranium for nuclear fuel. Three additional countries have recently announced plans to consider uranium enrichment in the future. There are 27 new nuclear plants under construction, most in the Far East (principally in China and India). Moreover, many operating power plants are getting old. In countries like Great Britain and France some older nuclear plants are due to be replaced, and France, where over 70 percent of the power is nuclear, is ready to build new plants. Worldwide, nuclear provides about 16 percent of electric power. Much of that technology is "dual use:" centrifuges used to enrich power reactor fuel can also be spun longer to make weapon-grade nuclear material (high-enriched uranium). Special event planners have scheduled two and a half days of discussion, the first for broad brush political statements by ministers and the second reserved for working level experts who will explain the technical issues, with a final day for discussion and recommendations for a "road-map" for further actions. Despite the many layers of complexity, "this is an either/or situation," Tariq Rauf of IAEA, scientific secretary for the special event, said. "If we don´t make it work, then we must prepare to live in a world where dozens of countries have the capability and key ingredients to make nuclear weapons." Related Resources: » IAEA General Conference » Story: IAEA Special Event