An international nuclear watchdog agency will open the first independent “bank” for nuclear reactor fuel on Aug. 29 in Kazakhstan, a bid to forestall developing nations from building their own nuclear capabilities.
Uranium can both make electricity and make bombs, a key dilemma of the nuclear age. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank is intended to forestall developing nations from building their own uranium enrichment factories — capable of making both reactor fuel and bomb material — by serving as a lender of last resort if the uranium market fails to supply reactor fuel.
Initially funded by billionaire investor Warren Buffett as well as the US, Norway, United Arab Emirates, European Union, Kazakhstan, and Kuwait, the bank will stockpile 90 metric tons (almost 200,000 pounds) of reactor fuel by next year, about enough to supply 200 to 500 nuclear reactor fuel rods able to power a city for three years.
“The point is to make nuclear power to make electricity,” former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz of MIT said at a Tuesday media briefing. In a nutshell: Nations that meet IAEA requirements for regular inspection of their facilities will be allowed to purchase uranium from the bank in supply emergencies. The bank, Moniz said, “is saying you are going to have an assured supply chain.”
Former US senator Sam Nunn, now of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), said at the briefing that the bank removes a pretext some nations might use to justify building their own enrichment facilities. Kazakhstan “has been a model” for limiting nuclear arms, he added, having gotten rid of its own highly enriched uranium in the last decade, making it an ideal host for the independent bank.
NTI, a nuclear nonproliferation organization, first recruited Buffett to make the initial $50 million pledge, contingent on other nations providing another $100 million toward the bank. The IAEA, an international nuclear reactor watchdog that reports to the United Nations, voted to proceed with the bank in 2010.
“I made a phone call to Warren from Vienna in March of 2005,” asking him to make the donation, Nunn said. Buffett, a famously savvy investor, agreed so long as the rest of the world matched his investment two to one, and the IAEA worked to raise the funds and ensure transit for the fuel through Russian and China.
“Warren Buffett has said many times that from his perspective, there is no better investment than non-proliferation of nuclear materials,” Nunn said.
About 45 more nations are interested in developing their own new reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Uranium has to be “enriched” — meaning it must be in its most powerful molecular form, known as U235 — to serve as reactor fuel. That same enrichment technology can further concentrate the radioactive metal into a form useful for making atomic bombs, a classic dual-use technology that internal organizations have sought to control since the dawn of the nuclear age.
In the early 2000s, revelations about illicit export of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology by scientist A.Q. Khan to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and other countries, alongside Iran’s nuclear program, led the IAEA to look for ways to cut incentives for countries to build their enrichment facilities. The new bank is the only concrete project to emerge from those proposals.
“As more nations seek nuclear power, it is imperative for the world to improve the security of the nuclear fuel cycle,” Nunn said.
By establishing an IAEA repository not under the control of any nation, he said, the bank will strengthen its credibility as an honest broker among nuclear powers, essential in its main watchdog role of assuring nations that their neighbors aren’t secretly developing weapons capabilities under the guise of a reactor program.
However, the bank has limitations: The amount of uranium it holds is not large compared to world demand and is basically intended to help out small countries with between one and five reactors. And the uranium would still have to be fabricated into nuclear fuel rods for use in reactors.
The world now has a 90-year supply of uranium, according to the IAEA, with vastly more ore reserves. Aside from states such as India, Pakistan, and Iran, which have been shut out of the international fuel market for their suspicious activities, the market for uranium has generally worked smoothly. That means the world might never use the bank, Nunn and other experts said.
“It’s a good idea, but its real-world impact is likely to be limited” because that market has diverse suppliers, nuclear proliferation expert Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution told BuzzFeed News by email.
“A country determined to pursue enrichment for nuclear weapons — or at least the option to acquire nuclear weapons — may well claim that, for energy security and independence, it must have to own capability, even if not economical,” Einhorn said. “It is very unlikely that the IAEA bank would have discouraged Iran from pursuing its indigenous enrichment program.”