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New nuclear fuel bank a welcome development

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One of the many things the world has learned from the Iran nuclear saga is that its leaders made a mistake, when negotiating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1960s, in not doing anything to constrain uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. This failure apparently stemmed from the belief — long since proven wrong, certainly in the case of uranium — that the only states ever likely to possess that technical capability already possessed nuclear weapons, or (like Germany) were totally committed never to acquire them.

As a result, any member state can argue for its “inalienable right” under the NPT to pursue any stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Although any such right extends only to activities for “peaceful purposes,” the loophole is gaping. Any technically capable state — and there are now dozens of them — can build uranium enrichment facilities with the official purpose of producing fuel for nuclear power or research reactors, but which are nonetheless inherently capable of producing the much higher-grade fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

It is not for nothing that such facilities have been described as “bomb starter kits,” and that Iran’s progress down that path — whether deliberately designed to give it a latent weapons breakout capability or not — has spooked so many others in the international community. That is why there was so much pressure to produce the deal now on the table, which dramatically limits Iran’s enrichment capability.

While renegotiating the NPT itself to close the enrichment loophole seems for now a lost cause, there are other ways to address this proliferation risk. One of the most important, and long-advocated, strategies is to demonstrate to countries that rely on nuclear power, or are planning to develop it, that they do not need their own uranium-enrichment program to ensure their fuel supply’s security.

Concern about fuel-supply security has always been Iran’s main publicly stated justification for acquiring its enrichment capability — a justification that its critics assert was manufactured simply to conceal a covert weapons agenda. Whether or not that is the case, all current and would-be nuclear power producers are entitled to be anxious about having an absolutely assured fuel supply, given the major economic and social consequences they would face in the event of a disruption.

Yes, until now, the commercial nuclear-fuel market has worked well: no power reactor has had to shut down because of fuel-supply disruptions. But the cut-off of the supply of other energy resources (notably Russia’s disruption of natural-gas supplies to Ukraine and, by extension, to Western Europe) has raised legitimate concerns about whether this could happen with nuclear fuel.

Although the issue has been much debated, until now there has been only modest progress in developing fuel-supply assurance arrangements that would meet this concern. Russia, with the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), maintains a sizable reserve of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at its international center in Angarsk; but, in the current security environment, there has been understandable international reluctance to rely on it. The United Kingdom has proposed a supply guarantee of its own, though it has so far attracted little attention.

Now, in an important new development, to be officially launched this month (on Aug. 27), Kazakhstan is establishing a major new international fuel bank, which it will operate on behalf of the IAEA. The new facility should once and for all remove the main excuse that has been advanced, sincerely or not, for building and maintaining homegrown enrichment capability.

Scheduled to commence operations in 2017, the Kazakh fuel bank will store up to 90 tons of LEU, sufficient to refuel three typical power-producing light water reactors. While Kazakhstan will physically operate the bank, the uranium will be owned and controlled by the IAEA, and made available to non-nuclear-weapon states if, for any reason, they cannot secure the LEU they need from the commercial market.

Provided the state in question is in compliance with its comprehensive non-proliferation safeguards agreement with the IAEA, it can draw the required fuel from the bank and transfer it to a fuel fabricator to make fuel assemblies for the reactors involved.

The Kazakh fuel bank has very wide and high-level international backing, helped by the country’s credentials. A former nuclear test-site state, Kazakhstan willingly gave up the nuclear weapons on its territory when the opportunity arose with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and it has been a strong and consistent advocate of nuclear arms control and disarmament ever since.

The bank has been funded by voluntary contributions, including $50 million from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S.-based NGO, $49 million from the U.S. government, up to $25 million from the European Union, $10 million each from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and $5 million from Norway.

Aside from the Iran deal, good news on nuclear weapons has been sparse in recent years. The new Kazakh fuel bank is a significant step toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. Those who have worked to establish it deserve the world’s gratitude.

Gareth Evans was Australia’s foreign minister 1988-1996, co-chaired the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament 2009, co-authored “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015,” and convenes the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. © Project Syndicate, 2015