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Fully Stocked and Operational

IAEA LEU Bank provides reserve of main ingredient of nuclear fuel

Nicole Jawerth

Here, for the first time since the cylinders were filled with LEU at the Orano Cycle facility in France, their UX-30 Overpack protective packing was removed to prepare them for acceptance and final storage at the IAEA LEU Bank.

(Photo: Katy Laffan/IAEA)

The IAEA’s Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank is now fully stocked and operational. Owned by the IAEA and hosted by Kazakhstan, the IAEA LEU Bank aims to provide assurance to countries and to serve as a mechanism of last resort in case the supply of LEU to a nuclear power plant is disrupted due to exceptional circumstances and a Member State is unable to secure LEU from the commercial market or by any other means.

LEU is the basic ingredient in the fabrication of nuclear fuel. It is made by enriching naturally occurring uranium to make it suitable for energy production.

In October and December 2019, shipments of LEU arrived at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. These shipments completed the LEU Bank’s stock of 90 tonnes of LEU, typically sufficient for one fuel load of a 1000 megawatt (MWe) Light Water Reactor’s core or three core reloads.

“I am very pleased that the IAEA met the challenge and delivered on what the international community requested,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi.

Ambitious undertaking

The LEU Bank is one of the IAEA’s most ambitious undertakings since the IAEA was founded in 1957. Since the decision by the Board of Governors in 2010 to establish the Bank, bringing the LEU Bank project to fruition required concerted efforts involving many areas of the IAEA’s activities. The project included:

  • Negotiating a legal framework for the IAEA LEU Bank with Kazakhstan and the operator, the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP), in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk;
  • Designing and building an LEU storage facility, in line with IAEA safety standards and security guidance;
  • Supporting the Government of Kazakhstan in enhancing its legal and regulatory framework in relation to the facility;
  • Concluding transit agreements with China and Russia for the transport of the LEU to and from the site, as well as separate transport contracts with transport companies in China, Kazakhstan and Russia, China; and
  • Acquiring 90 tonnes of LEU, from two vendors, in what was the IAEA’s largest single procurement undertaking to date.

The first LEU shipment from French nuclear company Orano was transported by truck to a French port, by ship to Russia, and then by train to Kazakhstan. Upon arrival at the site, the 32 cylinders of LEU were checked by IAEA experts on the ground.

“Because of the long journey, it took more than four weeks to transport the LEU to the site. It required coordination among many players,” said Marta Ferrari, who was in charge of the project at the time of the fuel transport in 2019. “We gained valuable experience, as well as confidence, that we can use this transport route in case a country requests a supply of LEU.”

For the second shipment, Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom, the world’s largest producer of natural uranium, delivered 28 cylinders of LEU to the facility at the UMP. The uranium, which originated from Kazakhstan, was enriched at a facility in Russia and the LEU was transported by train to the site in eastern Kazakhstan, where it was checked and officially accepted by IAEA experts.

Establishment and operation

The establishment and operation of the IAEA LEU Bank are fully funded by voluntary contributions from IAEA Member States and other donors, who initially pledged US $150 million to cover set up and estimated operational costs until 2036. Donors include the European Union, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Norway, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America. Kazakhstan also contributed in kind by hosting the IAEA LEU Bank.

UMP, as the facility operator, has the prime responsibility for the safety and security of the IAEA LEU Bank and will apply IAEA safety standards and nuclear security guidance documents. “The IAEA will continue to actively manage the LEU Bank to ensure that the LEU is ready to ship in a timely manner should a Member State, meeting all conditions, request delivery,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and the Project Executive for the IAEA LEU Bank. This includes recertification of the sixty 30B cylinders that contain the LEU at a prescribed frequency to ensure that the cylinders meet the requirements for international transport, he added. Recertification of the 30B cylinders is based on the revised ISO Standard for the transport of uranium hexafluoride (ISO 7195:2020).

Other assurances of supply mechanisms established with the IAEA’s approval include a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by the Russian Federation at the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk, Russian Federation, and an assurance of supply guaranty by the United Kingdom for supplies of LEU enrichment services.

LEU is used in nuclear power reactors. Globally, as of 2021, there are around 440 nuclear power reactors in operation, supplying about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity and more than a quarter of all low-carbon electricity. In addition, 51 nuclear power reactors are under construction.

Minimizing the use of high enriched uranium

With the aim of reducing security and proliferation risks, over the past few decades the IAEA has helped countries to convert research reactor fuels from high enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU). This is part of global efforts, coordinated by the IAEA, to minimize the civilian use of HEU, an ingredient that can be used to create a nuclear device intended for malicious use.

Most of today’s research reactors were built in the 1960s and 1970s for use in science, industry, education and training. Technology at the time required HEU to perform experiments for scientific research, but today much of this research can be carried out using LEU, in which the concentration of uranium-235 is below 20%.

The IAEA has supported HEU to LEU fuel conversions, as well as HEU repatriations, in 21 countries. It has also supported HEU minimization through technical cooperation projects, fact-finding missions, coordinated research projects, Technical Meetings, consultancy meetings and procurement assistance.

The most recent conversion took place in Nigeria in December 2018.

December, 2021
Vol. 62-4

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