Multilateral Nuclear Approaches

Peter Hong
June 13, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012


Multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle seek to offer parts of the nuclear fuel cycle through multilaterally administered institutions. These proposals broadly have two goals: "assurance of non-proliferation" and "assurance of supply and services." [1] Currently, the commercial nuclear fuel market satisfies demand for fuel services allowed under national and international laws. [1] However, some, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 2005 Expert Group on Multilateral Nuclear Approaches, believe that a state may cut-off fuel supplies to another state for political reasons. A multilateral approach, they reason, could offer states a fuel supply protected from political disruption, essentially assuring fuel supply. [1] They argue that persuading states that they can purchase fuel from a multilateral source reduces the likelihood that states will build indigenous sensitive enrichment or reprocessing capabilities. This could assure non-proliferation.

Multilateral Nuclear Approaches on the Front-End

States have proposed front-end multilateral nuclear approaches. These range from plans to create emergency reserves of nuclear fuel to establishing enrichment facilities placed on extraterritorial land and administered by a multilateral body such as the IAEA. One currently operating multilateral approach is the Russian International Uranium Enrichment Center (IUEC) at Angarsk. It operates under IAEA safeguards, and includes a reserve of emergency fuel accessible to any non-nuclear weapons state in the IAEA that suffers a low-enriched uranium fuel disruption for political reasons "unrelated to technical or commercial considerations." [2] Prominent scholars, such as Pierre Goldschmidt of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace do not find fuel disruptions likely. He argues that bilateral measures to strengthen fuel assurances are possible, but that ambitious multilateral front-end proposals may not offer much benefit. [2]

Multilateral Nuclear Approaches on the Back-End

There are currently no proposals for multilateral nuclear approaches on the back-end. Goldschmidt explains, "... the development of multinational spent-fuel storage and geological disposal facilities will be relegated to the distant horizon due to the 'Not In My Backyard' (NIMBY) syndrome." [2] It is difficult to propose a multilateral approach to the back-end when many states have not yet set national-level back-end policy. However, McCombie and Isaacs argue that proposing a multilateral spent-fuel management solution could encourage many participants and reduce stocks of spent nuclear fuel around the world. Unlike the front-end, where commercial suppliers are meeting the demand for fuel, there is great demand but little supply for commercial services for spent fuel management. [3]


Multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle are currently debated among scholars and policymakers. On the front-end, initiatives such as Russia's IUEC are currently functioning, though some argue it is not necessary. The value of front-end proposals is a controversial issue. On the back-end, there are no proposals, yet potentially great demand. The UAE, a growing nuclear energy state, recently opened bids for a contract for a commercial supplier to both supply fuel and take back the spent nuclear fuel. [4] This arrangement helps the UAE avoid having to form national policy on how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. Permanent spent fuel management is a politically difficult issue, and some argue that a multilateral back-end proposal could draw wide participation.

© Peter Hong. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report submitted to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency," International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/640, February 2005.

[2] Goldschmidt, P. "Multilateral Nuclear Fuel Supply Guarantees and Spent Fuel Management: What Are the Priorities?" Daedalus 139, No. 1, 7 (2010).

[3] C. McCombie and T. Isaacs, "The Key Role of the Back-End in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Daedalus 139, No. 1, 32 (2010).

[4] A. Yee, "Clamour to Supply UAE Nuclear Needs," The National, 12 Aug 11.