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A New Framework for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria
Special Event on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle during the 50th Session of the IAEA General Conference

I am pleased to welcome you all to this Special Event.

I would like to begin by quoting another speech, made some time ago: "To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people, and the governments of the East and West, there are certain steps that can be taken now."

The speech continues:

"I therefore make the following proposals: The governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency... The atomic energy agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials... The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind... A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world."

That speech was made on 8 December, 1953, by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I find it interesting that the first concrete articulation of the "Atoms for Peace" concept proposed a model for assuring the supply of nuclear material to all countries for peaceful purposes.

This concept also found ample expression in the IAEA Statute, where Article IX talks about Member States "[making] available to the Agency such quantities of special fissionable materials as they deem advisable and on such terms as shall be agreed with the Agency" - materials which could then be used as determined by the Board of Governors.

As you might expect from these references, our current discussion is not the first time such a scheme for assurance of supply has been suggested or discussed. But the urgent need for such a scheme today may help us to succeed.

Given the dual nature of nuclear science - its potential to bring great benefit or great destruction to humanity - it should not surprise us that, as times change, our frameworks for dealing with nuclear technology and nuclear material must adapt accordingly. As we work with the benefits and risks of nuclear technology, we continue to learn more about how to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks. So it is natural that we continue to evolve our systems for managing those risks and benefits.

In the 1960s, with an increasing number of countries pursuing nuclear weapons programmes, we developed the em>Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

After the Chernobyl accident, in the late 1980s, we developed an international safety regime, with conventions, safety standards and a broad array of peer review and assistance missions.

In the mid-1990s, after our experience with Iraq´s clandestine nuclear weapons programme, we said we needed more authority to implement safeguards effectively, and we developed the additional protocol.

Five years ago, in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, we realized the vulnerability of nuclear and radiological materials as a tool for terrorists, and we re-engineered our nuclear security programme.

Today we are faced with two additional challenges. The increase in global energy demand is driving a potential expansion in the use of nuclear energy. And concern is mounting regarding the proliferation risks created by the ongoing spread of sensitive nuclear technology, such as that used in uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel reprocessing.

The convergence of these challenges clearly points to the need for the development of a new, multilateral framework for the nuclear fuel cycle.

To develop and establish this framework will certainly be a complex endeavour. As I mentioned yesterday, I believe it could best be achieved through a series of progressive phases:

  • First, by establishing mechanisms that would assure the supply of fuel for nuclear power plants.
  • Second, by developing, as needed, similar assurances for the acquisition of nuclear power reactors.
  • And third, by facilitating the conversion of enrichment and reprocessing facilities from national to multilateral operations, and by encouraging countries to limit future enrichment and reprocessing to multilateral operations.

Regarding an assurance of supply mechanism, I should point out two aspects. The first is that it acts like an insurance policy to make sure that all countries that fulfil their non-proliferation obligations are able to get the fuel and the technology they need, without being subject to extraneous political considerations. Such considerations have been applied in the past.

The second aspect - and perhaps the most important to emphasize - is that this is not an attempt to divide the nuclear community into suppliers and recipients. Rather, the aim of the assurance of supply concept is to establish a mutually supportive international project, in which everyone should work together to ensure that whichever country needs nuclear fuel or reactor technology will get it, provided that certain non-proliferation criteria have been met.

From this perspective, the intent of an assurance of supply mechanism is to enable countries to make full use of nuclear energy with confidence, and without the need to develop their own capacity for sensitive fuel cycle operations, until the time - I hope soon - when we move to an exclusively international approach to the fuel cycle. It should also be noted that it is intended to be a mechanism of last resort, and is not meant to interfere with the competitive nuclear fuel supply market.

A broad range of ideas, studies and proposals have been put forward on this topic. An important point to note is that none of the sponsors of these proposals for an assurance of supply have suggested that such a mechanism should impact on the inalienable rights of countries to make full of use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It should be emphasized that the existence of this mechanism should not alter the right of any State to take its own decision regarding its nuclear fuel cycle.

I would urge you all to remember that, while different countries approach these discussions with different priorities, we will all share in the benefits if we succeed, and we will share the risks if we fail. I trust we all share with Eisenhower his "deep belief that if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all."

Nevertheless, the complexity of the issue raises obvious questions with technical, political and legal dimensions: Who is going to provide the fuel? Who is going to pay for it? Is the fuel going to be under Agency custody?

Where are we going to store the material if the Agency takes custody of it? What will govern liability concerns? Should the assurance only cover the supply of low enriched or natural uranium, or should it also cover the fabrication of uranium into fuel assemblies for reactor use?

What criteria will we use to release the fuel? Who is going to decide in each case? Is it going to be the Director General, or the Board?

These are all questions we need to deal with, working together in close consultation.

The purpose of this Special Event is to consider these and other questions. We will hear presentations on the proposals that have already been developed. But in no sense are we here to choose the best proposal. I doubt that we will even cover all the questions, much less develop all the answers. What I do hope is that the discussions this week will enable the Secretariat to develop a roadmap for consideration by the Board of Governors on the way to move forward.

The Roadmap

What do I mean by a roadmap?

I would expect, first of all, that the results of these discussions could produce a list and categorization of the important legal, policy and technical issues that require further study.

Second, in some areas, the insights arising from these discussions might serve as guidance to the Secretariat’s work. For example, participants might agree to recommend that assurance of supply mechanisms are needed for both the nuclear material itself - low enriched or natural uranium - and for the conversion and fabrication of that material into the fuel assemblies that can be used in nuclear reactors.

Third, I would expect that these discussions would highlight areas of divergent priorities or differing views, in which greater consultation will be required to develop the needed consensus for moving forward. Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that, "Honest disagreement is often a sign of progress." If so, we should not hesitate to clarify those differences of view, the better to work on solutions.

Once ideas stemming from the road map have been further developed, the Secretariat will report to the Board. The goal would be for the Secretariat, with the active involvement of Member States, to develop an assurance of supply proposal for consideration by the Board of Governors as early as possible.


We are privileged to have with us this year Mr. Charles B. Curtis, the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) - to serve both as a keynote speaker and as the overall chairman of this Special Event. Previously, Mr. Curtis served as Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Energy from 1994 to 1997. I feel confident that - together with the other participating experts, nuclear industry representatives, and distinguished guests - he will work to make this a constructive and meaningful dialogue. I look forward to your conclusions and recommendations, which will be conveyed later this week to the plenary of the General Conference.

I am pleased to say that last week I received a letter from the Co-Chairmen of the Nuclear Threat Initiative - Mr. Ted Turner and former Senator Sam Nunn, regarding the readiness of NTI to contribute a significant sum to the Agency as seed money to set up an IAEA fuel reserve. Senator Nunn, who is with us today, will be giving you more details, and I do not wish to steal his thunder - but I do wish to express my gratitude for their generosity. I welcome this important initiative by NTI, and I appreciate the spirit behind it, coming on the heels of other initiatives by NTI in the last few years in support of Agency activities. In particular, I find it encouraging to note that civil society is taking a direct interest in these issues so critical to international security.

With these remarks I hereby open the Special Event, and turn the podium over to Mr. Curtis. I wish you well in your deliberations.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018


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