Page last updated at 06:53 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

International nuclear bank - helping world peace?


Humphrey Hawksley was given unprecedented access to the site

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Kazakhstan

In 1953, eight years after the American nuclear bombing of Japan, President Dwight D Eisenhower laid out a vision that he called Atoms for Peace.

The United States and the Soviet Union, he suggested, should make joint contributions from their stockpiles of uranium that would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind.

It was too idealistic for its time. The Cold War was intensifying. At its heart was the competing strength of nuclear arsenals with the apocalyptic scenario of Mutually Assured Destruction - that nuclear conflict would obliterate both sides.

But now, more than 50 years on, the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme has pushed the Eisenhower vision into reality.

In November, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made a deal with Russia to stockpile 120 tonnes of nuclear fuel in a plant at Angarsk near Irkutsk.

And in 2010, the IAEA is expected to come to a more encompassing arrangement with Kazakhstan to keep 60 tonnes of uranium at a plant in the east of the country.


The aim is to convince some 60 developing countries planning to use nuclear power in the near future that they do not need to go down Iran's path of enriching their own uranium.

As long as they adhere to IAEA regulations, nuclear fuel supplies will be guaranteed regardless of their politics or human rights record.

"This is something that is a visible quantity of nuclear material," says the IAEA's Tariq Rauf.

"It will provide user countries with a greater assurance that the material would be available to them and they would not have the need to build their own enrichment facilities."

Crisis solution?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan made a decision to rid itself of the large quantity of nuclear weapons left behind. Despite its own questionable record on human rights and democracy, it has been held up by the West as a role model in nuclear non-proliferation.

The BBC was given unprecedented access to the planned storage site for the international nuclear fuel bank, at the sprawling Ulba metallurgical factory in Ust Kamenogorsk - a remote, once-closed Soviet city specialising in fuel production.

The time has come to implement a new framework for the use of nuclear energy, a framework that accounts for both the lessons learned and the current realities
Tariq Rauf
International Atomic Energy Agency

The fuel would be kept in a cavernous warehouse with a wired-off section at one end. At present, it contains cylinders of uranium hexafluoride gas, used in one of the processing stages of creating nuclear fuel.

At the other end is a rail track from where the fuel could be transported under the strictest security to Iran, North Korea or any country that called upon it - as long as it was a signatory to the initiative.

Kazakhstan would officially cede sovereignty of the area to the IAEA, so that storage site and surrounding area would become diplomatic territory like the United Nations' complex in New York. The IAEA would own the nuclear fuel and have complete jurisdiction over its use.

"There is plenty of storage space," explains Anatoly Kushovsky, the plant's director of operations. "And behind that wall there, we have another whole section. We have many years experience in handling nuclear materials and if this deal goes ahead, it could be a key to solving the nuclear crisis."

It might not, however, be completely straightforward. Several developing countries are suspicious that the fuel bank could be a first step towards removing their sovereign rights over nuclear fuel production.

"The leading players are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Argentina," says Mr Rauf.

"These are heavyweight countries. Some are G20 members. It's a group that in numbers and influence is powerful and making its voice heard. For us, it's a matter of confidence-building."


Eisenhower's fuel bank idea has the full backing of US President Barack Obama, whose vision is a world free of nuclear weapons.

In Washington, the architect of the plan is a non-proliferation organisation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), that has been working with the Russians and Kazakhs to push it through.

IAEA inspector at Yongbyon reactor in North Korea ( 2008 image)
The West does not want a repeat of the disputes with Iran and N Korea

"Enrichment facilities are not only inherently dangerous, but also extraordinary pricey," says the NTI's president, Charles Curtis.

"They cost between five and 10 billion dollars and you would need between 10 and 20 nuclear reactors to justify that money. The fuel bank offers a guaranteed supply and much cheaper alternative for states that only need one or two reactors for their electrical power."

Those countries planning to use nuclear power in the near future include Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea have reached levels that Western governments never want to see repeated.

Yet there remains a nightmare scenario in which dozens of hostile governments could begin enriching their own uranium, therefore giving themselves the ability to make nuclear weapons.

"The time has come to implement a new framework for the use of nuclear energy," says Mr Rauf: "a framework that accounts for both the lessons learned and the current realities."

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