Boston Globe - 8 Jun 09

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 24 Aug 09)

Obama Seeks Global Uranium Fuel Bank

Plan could counter Iran's weapon quest

By Bryan Bender
June 8, 2009

President Obama told Muslim leaders that "any nation should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power."

WASHINGTON - As part of a new strategy to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, President Obama plans to seek the creation of the first-ever international supply of uranium that would allow nations to obtain fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but limit the capacity to make bombs, according to senior administration officials.

Many arms-control specialists consider the idea of a "fuel bank" controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency a key way to test the sincerity of Iranian leaders, who maintain that their enrichment program is only for civilian use and necessary because they cannot be assured of energy supplies from other countries.

Many specialists believe an internationally managed fuel bank could also remove the "peaceful use" justification for other nations that might be trying to use a civilian nuclear program as cover to make nuclear weapons.

"We want to give the Iranians an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful nuclear energy and serve as a new model," said a top administration official involved in crafting arms-control policy. "What we can do is create a system of incentives where, as a practical matter for countries that want nuclear power, the best way to obtain their fuel and to handle fuel services is through a new international architecture."

The IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, is also pursuing the fuel-bank idea, and in a pair of reports Friday highlighted the urgency of the issue. It said that Iran has expanded the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, making it more difficult for UN inspectors to keep track of the nation's disputed nuclear program. The agency also said it had discovered traces of processed uranium at a second site in Syria, where Israel in 2007 bombed a North Korean-designed reactor that US intelligence says was meant to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Obama has outlined a goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons and has pledged to reduce the US arsenal and take other steps toward that long-term vision. In his closely scrutinized speech to the Muslim world last week, he declared that "we have reached a decisive point" on the Iran nuclear weapons issue and that he is committed to "preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."

But he also said that "any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power" if it follows nuclear weapons nonproliferation agreements.

The uranium fuel bank is a key building block of Obama's overall strategy, which is aimed at helping limit the further spread of the technology needed to build nuclear weapons - the same technology that provides nuclear energy.

The basic idea is to have a relatively small, but guaranteed supply of low-enriched uranium available as a backup should a country's supplies of civilian nuclear fuel from other nations be cut off for political or other reasons. Of the dozen or so countries that now can enrich uranium, several - such as Brazil and South Africa - do so to guard against such disruptions, not to build nuclear weapons.

The most advanced proposal calls for the IAEA to maintain a uranium supply for purchase by member states. The agency has already received $150 million in pledges from various countries and the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan arms-control advocacy group. The agency's 35-member board of governors is scheduled to begin debating the issue at a meeting later this month.

Russia and Kazakhstan have offered to house an agency-supervised fuel bank, while Germany has called for the creation of a multinational enrichment company under the auspices of the IAEA.

"This is an idea that has pretty broad support," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "It addresses a problem that has been around for a long time. Nations that can make low-enriched uranium for nuclear power can use the same industrial capacity to make highly enriched uranium" for nuclear weapons.

Obama's support for the idea dates to his days as a senator from Illinois, when he cosponsored legislation calling for a US commitment to a fuel bank. The senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations, said Obama plans to discuss the issue with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a summit in Moscow next month.

But there remain significant political and economic hurdles to the fuel bank's creation, according to several US and European officials and nonproliferation specialists.

For example, some sectors of the nuclear power industry fear losing customers or profits if there is a new international provider of uranium. There are four main providers that sell nuclear energy fuel, one in Russia, one in the United States, one in France, and a German-British-Dutch consortium. But they can sell only to countries approved by their governments.

"Some in the industry are concerned that the material in the fuel bank may take away clients from them or the material could be dumped on the market [and] temporarily depress prices," said a European diplomat directly involved in the IAEA deliberations who was not authorized by his government to speak publicly.

Proponents, however, insist that at any given time the international supplies would be quite small and would have no measurable impact on the market.

For example, the Russian proposal calls for a supply of 120 tons of low-enriched uranium, according to IAEA documents obtained by the Globe, while the IAEA plan calls for between 60 tons and 80 tons - amounting to about a three-year supply for a 1,000-megawatt light water reactor, the most common type around the world, which produces enough electricity for about 1 million homes.

There is also skepticism from some non-nuclear nations who fear the move is designed to deprive them of their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop their own civilian nuclear power industries.

But an IAEA official insists the fuel bank would not have that effect. "No one is talking about restricting the rights of any country," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

Indeed, many specialists predict Iran will still insist on enriching uranium even with an international supply available for its nuclear reactors. But such a decision by Tehran would be new evidence that it has military uses in mind for its nuclear program and help build more international pressure to punish it.

Iran's refusal to take advantage of the fuel bank "may give the US and other countries a stronger argument that Iran's program is really designed to give them a nuclear weapon potential," Kimball said.