Foreign Policy Blogs

Away We Go! The case for a nuclear fuel bank and U.S. consistency

News of Iran’s intensified global search for uranium supplies has hit the wires, underscoring the need for the IAEA to get its nuclear fuel bank up and running.  The Agency received the final green light it needed when its Board of Governors approved a proposal by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to establish a bank for low-enriched nuclear fuel on December 3rd, 2010.  That vote also freed up the $50 million pledged by Philanthropist Warren Buffett via NTI and the additional $100 million pledged by the U.S. the European Union, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Norway to allow the IAEA to purchase and deliver roughly 60 to 80 metric tons of LEU, enough for one full core of reactor fuel.  Establishing a fuel bank under IAEA control would, according to its supporters, remove the need for individual states to establish their own nuclear fuel processing capabilities.  It would also, optimistically, take the wind out of the sails of countries like Iran, which seek to procure uranium for a covert nuclear weapons program.  If Iran, as it has maintained for years, truly seeks a peaceful nuclear power program, then obtaining the LEU from the IAEA bank would satisfy their needs, right?

Well, not so fast.  A number of the G-77 states, who are also IAEA Board members, either abstained from the December vote or, in the case of an earlier Board vote on the Russian proposal to establish a similar bank in Angarsk, voted against the scheme altogether.  This is consistent with their view that non-nuclear weapons states have a “right” to the full suite of peaceful nuclear technologies according to Article IV of the NPT, including those that are part of a civilian nuclear fuel cycle.  This has been a tough diplomatic nut to crack.  Particularly since that same group of states continue to keep the heat on the P-5 nuclear weapons states about fulfilling their obligations under NPT Article VI.
But wait, there’s more.  This pesky Article IV albatross also hangs over U.S. efforts to capitalize on the burgeoning nuclear power programs in countries like Vietnam and Jordan.  The State Department, undoubtedly at the behest of the nuclear power industry, began negotiations with these countries to conclude agreements for cooperation, or, “123 agreements” to permit civilian nuclear cooperation.  However, the draft language of the Vietnam agreement omits an important provision:  that in exchange for civilian nuclear technology, Vietnam foreswear enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies.

In the preamble of the oft-referred to U.S.-UAE 123 agreement, lauded by many in the nonproliferation crowd, the UAE swore off enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies.  It is, many have said, a model for nuclear cooperation with other countries.  However, last August, news outlets reported that the U.S. was not going to seek the same commitment from non-Middle Eastern countries, like Vietnam.  Those in the know at the State Department said that negotiators provided a draft 123 to Vietnam which allows Hanoi to produce nuclear fuel domestically. USG reps have said, according to an August 3rd 2010 WSJ piece, that:

“Given our special concerns about Iran and the genuine threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, we believe the U.A.E….agreement is a model for the region.”  However, “these same concerns do not specifically apply to Asia.  We will take different approaches region by region and country by country.”

So, let me get this straight.  The U.S. seeks broad adherence to the NPT by all signatories, and, one hopes, the non-signatories, but will choose who can and who cannot have ENR technology which could allow a country to make weapons-grade uranium and separate plutonium.  But, by the way, the nuclear fuel bank is also a good idea.  And as for Asia not having any threat of proliferation or an arms race, the USG apparently has selective memory when it comes to countries like North Korea.  What kind of message does this send to a country like Iran?  Or Syria?
The Obama Administration has come a long way in shoring up the sagging U.S. profile in arms control and nonproliferation matters, putting a nice bow on it with the hard-won entry-into-force of New START.  But picking favorites with regard to which countries can and cannot seek ENR technologies threatens to undo all the good the Administration has done.  The Administration cannot lead by example, encouraging countries to take the steps necessary to faithfully adhere to the NPT, ratify the Additional Protocol, and adopt CTBT or an FMCT for that matter, if it continues to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

In response to the Vietnam 123 text, Khaled Toukan, the head of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission opined: “We believe in the universality of the NPT,” said . “We do not agree on applying conditions and restrictions outside of the NPT on a regional basis or a country-by-country basis.”

Can you blame him?  Either the U.S. wants to prevent the spread of the technologies which permit countries to enrich uranium to a weapons grade and separate weapons-grade plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, or it doesn’t.  You can’t have it both ways, at least not if your policies need to pass the nuclear nonproliferation blush test.  This one just doesn’t.  And as for dissuading Iran from scouring the planet for a country willing to breach global comity and supply uranium to it for nefarious purposes, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be convinced either.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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