A uranium bank just opened in Kazakhstan to stop the spread of nukes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 2:09pm

Arms control advocates on Tuesday celebrated the opening of an internationally supported repository for nuclear reactor fuel that its backers believe will dissuade countries interested in nuclear power from developing the capability to make atomic weapons.

Enriching uranium, the technology that produces fuel for a nuclear power plant, is also the process for creating a nuclear bomb, meaning that the risk of proliferation spreads when individual countries build their own fuel-making facilities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s low-enriched uranium bank, opened Tuesday in Kazakhstan, is the culmination of a years-long effort to respond to this risk. The agency, which will run the “bank” independently of any country, will purchase and store low-enriched uranium, fuel for civilian reactors but not an ingredient for nuclear weapons.

The uranium repository is also a rare bright spot in the rocky US-Russian relationship. Russia is a leading global supplier of uranium to the nuclear power industry, and has its own uranium repository. Moscow was initially cool to the idea of an independently run uranium bank that might be seen as a competitor. Ultimately, however, Moscow agreed to support the project. Both Russian and China granted transit rights for uranium fuel being shipped to and from the Kazakh facility.

“Russia played an absolutely critical role in negotiating a transit agreement,” said Andrew Bieniawski, who oversees projects related to the security and minimization of nuclear materials for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The Washington-based non-profit group provided the initial funding for the bank courtesy of a US$50 million investment from American billionaire Warren Buffett.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony, hailed the project as “an important element of the international effort not just in non-proliferation but also in the sphere of expansion of the countries that are putting nuclear energy to good use.”

“In some ways it’s a direct derivative of long-standing US-Russian co-operation on these issues,” Ryabkov said.

Those efforts have largely dried up following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Other than the notable exception of the Iran nuclear deal, US-Russian programs intended to stop the spread of nuclear weapons materials and negotiations on limiting the two sides’ nuclear arsenals have ground to a halt.

“There are a lot more opportunities that are going unaddressed because of the current situation,” said Ernest Moniz, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and secretary of energy during former US president Barack Obama’s second term.

Moniz said the two sides could be working on non-proliferation issues despite the chilly relationship. The Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Moscow-based Centre for Energy and Security Studies earlier this year compiled a catalogue of dozens of possible US-Russian projects in nuclear co-operation.

Arms-control advocates have expressed hope that the Trump administration’s modest support for the uranium bank will signal a willingness to invest in other nuclear non-proliferation initiatives

US backing for the uranium bank includes nearly US$50 million in federal financial support pledged by the administration of George W. Bush, which, like the Obama White House, embraced the bank concept with enthusiasm. The Trump administration signed off on the US aid package, but did not send a high-level delegation to the ceremony in Kazakhstan.

The White House’s early budget proposals have called for cuts in funding for international non-proliferation programs, and US President Donald Trump’s campaign speeches at times advocated expanding the US nuclear arsenal while also suggesting that more countries should develop nuclear weapons.

Shortly after taking office, the administration launched a comprehensive review of US nuclear weapons policy, with results expected to be announced as early as this fall.

The Trump White House has “not yet put forward a coherent philosophy about how they will address one of the president’s greatest responsibilities,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington non-profit that advocates increased efforts to safeguard or eliminate weapons of mass destruction. “I am quite concerned about our ability to provide the necessary leadership to advance constructive ideas to reduce risk.”

Other donors include Norway, the United Arab Emirates, the more than two dozen countries in the European Union, Kuwait, and Kazakhstan.

“The bank will play an important role in reducing nuclear dangers and serve as a vivid example of the benefits of international cooperation at a time when our world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe,” said former US senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in a packed auditorium in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

The ceremony took place on the 26th anniversary of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s decision to shut one of the Soviet Union’s two major nuclear test sites, in Semipalatinsk. In 1995, Kazakhstan turned over to Russia the 1,410 strategic nuclear warheads the Soviets had stationed on its territory, as well as an undisclosed number of short-range nuclear weapons.

“The will of the people of Kazakhstan was stronger than the Cold War,” Nazarbayev said at Tuesday’s ceremony.

The audience, which included officials from nations that donated to the project, was shown a video feed from the new bank in Ust-Kamenogorsk, about 1,000km of largely empty steppe east of Astana. The glistening repository was empty except for circular white racks that will hold the fuel.

Eventually, the bank will hold 90 tonnes of low enriched uranium, enough to produce fuel to power a large city for up to three years.

Low-enriched uranium fuel will be purchased on the market from a commercial supplier and stored in the Kazakh repository until needed. Countries applying to receive the fuel would be required to pay the market rate.

The bank essentially guarantees that fuel for nuclear power plants will be available, in the case of future disruptions to global uranium markets, to member states of the IAEA who are in good standing with their non-proliferation obligations.