A German proposal calling for a multilateral approach to the matter of ensuring fuel supply to nuclear power plants will be presented at IAEA headquarters on 19 February. The plan, entitled the Multilateral Enrichment Sanctuary Project (MESP), is one among several proposals that aim to tackle the issue of assuring supply and services of nuclear fuel while seeking to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime through better control over the sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle. Through the arrangement, States abiding by their safeguards and non-proliferation obligations would be guaranteed access to nuclear fuel regardless of political consideration, which could conceivably reduce the incentives for new national uranium enrichment facilities.
"Germany respects the right of every country to decide on its own energy mix, including nuclear energy," said German Ambassador Peter Gottwald, who will be hosting the Tuesday presentation. "We respect the inalienable right of every country to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, yet at the same time we all share a clear interest in minimizing possible proliferation risks emanating from the predicted wider use of nuclear power for civil purposes. Therefore, we have proposed an International Enrichment Centre under IAEA control to accommodate legitimate concerns of potential consumers, who are interested in using nuclear energy, as well as addressing well-founded proliferation concerns of the international community."
The German arrangement calls for the construction of an IAEA-supervised, commercially-administered uranium enrichment plant based on international property, which would be donated by a host country. The legal standing of the plant´s territory would be akin to the status afforded to international organizations in host countries, whereby the IAEA would be given sovereign rights over the territory. The plant would be operated by a private firm. However, the Agency would retain control of a buffer fuel stock to distribute when requested by a State facing political or economic blockage of shipment.
As the German scenario seeks to diversify control over global enrichment capacity, the proposal recommends that the site be based in a State that does not currently have enrichment capability. (Uranium enrichment for trade currently takes place in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.) Additional criteria for the host country include the need for reliable infrastructure, good accessibility (shipping access by sea is noted), political stability, and full adherence to safeguards agreements and the NPT.
Under the MESP initiative, the Agency would have the authority to exercise control over low-enriched uranium (LEU) exported from the neutral area. The enrichment firm, however, would retain privileges related to the construction, operation, and management of the LEU plant. Controls would be put in place to ensure that the plant would not enjoy a competitive advantage in terms of price or other benefits vis-à-vis competing firms on the global LEU market.
The German proposal was initially delivered to the Agency on 26 April 2007.
As reported last month, plans for the mutual assurance of a nuclear fuel supply are not new, and the general concept has been mulled over by various parties for decades.
In addition to the German model, additional proposals under consideration include:
- A Russian bid that establishes an International Uranium Enrichment Centre, based at the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex, in Eastern Siberia, which is already a manufacturer of LEU. An IAEA-controlled LEU reserve would be located at the complex and guaranteed to States who are in compliance with the non-proliferation regime and whose supply encounters interruption of service;
- A proposal put forth by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a US-based non-governmental organization that would establish a nuclear fuel bank in a location to be designated by the IAEA. To date, $100 million has been earmarked for the NTI plan, which calls for the IAEA and its Member States to administer a stockpile of LEU that would be available on a non-discriminatory, non-political basis to States who meet non-proliferation requirements. Warren Buffett, an advisor to NTI's Board of Directors, donated the initial $50m to the plan in September 2006, and the US Congress recently allocated another $50m to the proposal in a funding bill signed in December 2007. A remaining $50m contribution needs to be made for full funding of the plan;
- A system proposed by Japan in which the IAEA would maintain a registry of participating States and their nuclear fuel supply capacity. The IAEA Standby Arrangements System for the Assurance of Nuclear Fuel Supply would spring to action in the instance of a market failure by providing supply assurance from participating States. One point of distinction for the Japanese arrangement is that it would cover multiple activities at the front-end of the fuel cycle and not simply enriched uranium; and
- Additional multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle include an Austrian proposal, a report by the World Nuclear Association, another American proposal associated with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), and a six-party multilateral approach put forth in 2006, among others.