One fuel bank up and running, another on the way
Largely out of the public eye, slow but tangible progress has been made on establishing new methods for curbing nuclear proliferation.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would "work with other interested governments to establish a new international nuclear energy architecture -- including an international nuclear fuel bank, international nuclear fuel cycle centers, and reliable fuel supply assurances -- to meet growing demands for nuclear power without contributing to the proliferation of nuclear materials and fuel production facilities."
As we noted in our previous update, nuclear fuel banks are meant to encourage countries that don't have reliable supplies of enriched uranium and plutonium to get nuclear materials from other nations rather than building their own processing centers. This keeps the number of countries that have the ability to enrich uranium or re-purpose plutonium for making nuclear weapons relatively low, preventing proliferation.
Since our last update, significant progress has been made on the fuel bank idea.
One fuel bank -- established by the International Atomic Energy Agency and Russia -- became operational in December 2010. It is located near the city of Angarsk in Siberia.
Planning for a second bank is underway. It is to be located at one of several possible sites in Kazakhstan, with an opening date of 2013 projected earlier this year, though that could slip. This bank was first proposed to the IAEA by the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative and backed by a $50 million commitment from NTI advisor Warren Buffett. The bank has also received funding from the following governments: the United States, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, and Kuwait.
Separately, in July 2011, the Nuclear Suppliers Group -- an alliance of nations working toward non-proliferation, including the U.S. and the other four original nuclear powers -- agreed to strengthen language about the transfer of sensitive technology for enrichment and reprocessing technology. The language now states that nations requesting nuclear technology must be in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and must ratify an additional protocol under the authority of the IAEA or a regional agreement.
It remains to be seen whether such agreements, or fuel banks, will be successful in curbing the spread of nuclear materials that could be used in bomb-making. But the United States under Obama has advanced several elements of this promise. We rate it a Promise Kept.
Global Security Newswire, "IAEA, Kazakhstan to Discuss Fuel Bank Plan," Aug. 16, 2012
Global Security Newswire, "IAEA Fuel Bank Could Open in 2013,” Feb. 8, 2012
Nuclear Threat Initiative, "From Theory to Reality: The Evolution of Multilateral Assurance of Nuclear Fuel," March 24, 2011
Nuclear Suppliers Group, membership list, accessed Nov. 21, 2012
Email interview with Matthew Bunn, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, Nov. 5, 2012
E-mail interview with Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Nov. 21, 2012
Some progress, but fuel banks not yet operating
During the campaign, President Obama said he would "work with other interested governments to establish a new international nuclear energy architecture -- including an international nuclear fuel bank, international nuclear fuel cycle centers, and reliable fuel supply assurances - to meet growing demands for nuclear power without contributing to the proliferation of nuclear materials and fuel production facilities."
Nuclear fuel banks are meant to encourage countries that don't have reliable supplies of enriched uranium and plutonium to get nuclear materials from other nations rather than building their own processing centers, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. This keeps the number of countries that have the ability to enrich uranium or re-purpose plutonium for making nuclear weapons relatively low, preventing proliferation.
Two steps towards a nuclear fuel bank were taken in 2009. In November, with American backing, the International Atomic Energy Agency approved the world's first fuel bank: a reserve of 120 tons of low-enriched uranium (which isn't strong enough to be used in weapons) will be stored in the Siberian city of Angarsk. The IAEA will supervise the bank.
And while lots of people know Warren Buffett has been advising Obama on economic issues, his role in this promise has been lower-profile. In 2006, Buffett donated $50 million to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The money would be used to fund an IAEA-supervised fuel bank, provided the world's governments agreed to spend $100 million on the project. This year, for the first time, that milestone was reached, with the United States contributing $50 million and $10 million from Kuwait putting the project over the top. The IAEA would use the money to purchase low-enriched uranium, which it could then sell to its members at market prices. The agency would act as a "seller of last resort," calming developing nations who fear their fuel supplies could be cut off for political reasons, and making them less likely to build their own plants.
But Charles Ferguson, a nuclear policy expert and president of the Federation of American Scientists, said the $150 million would only supply "two or three fuel loads," or enough for three or four years.
It's worth noting Ferguson is skeptical of fuel banks in general: "Iran isn't going to be swayed [from developing their own facilities] by these fuel cycle proposals." Developing nations, including India and Egypt, are afraid the banks could end up limiting their abilities to set up fuel programs.
All in all, progress has been made during Obama's first year toward developing nuclear fuel banks, but neither is operational yet, and it's unclear if they'll have any significant impact. We rate this promise In The Works.
International Atomic Energy Agency, Request by the Russian Federation regarding its Initiative to Establish a Reserve of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) for the Supply of LEU to the IAEA for its Member States, November 27, 2009
Interview with Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, January 5, 2010
Interview with Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, January 5, 2010
Reuters, IAEA governors approve first nuclear fuel bank plan, November 27, 2009
Nuclear Threat Initiative, NTI/IAEA Fuel Bank Hits $100 Million Milestone; Kuwaiti Contribution Fulfills Buffett Monetary Condition, March 5, 2009
United Nations, Proposed nuclear fuel bank reaches go-ahead funding level, UN agency says, March 6, 2009