A milestone in nuclear non-proliferation: IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan

The long-awaited launch of the Low Enriched Uranium Bank on Aug. 29 is a bright spot in what has been a gloomy period of increasing international tension. It is a practical solution to help tackle two of the most serious global challenges. It is also a model of what can be achieved through vision, persistence and cooperation.

The two challenges for which the bank can help provide answers are, of course, climate change and nuclear proliferation. Both seem more pressing by the day.

As extreme weather events continue to grow in frequency and severity, scientists warn that this is just a foretaste of what uncontrollable climate change will mean. Heatwaves, storms and flooding, which just a few decades ago were rare in their ferocity, are now becoming both commonplace and affecting far larger areas.

But tackling climate change has to be done in a way which allows economies to continue to grow. Without offering countries the chance of improving living standards, we are not going to bring about the fundamental switch we need from fossil fuels.

Wind, solar and other green energy resources are going to have an increasingly larger role in driving sustainable economic growth. So, too, will nuclear power. As countries are already showing, nuclear power plants can be a major part of the energy mix, helping economies grow without burning fossil fuels.

It is why nations in many parts of the world are either actively developing or considering starting their own civilian nuclear programmes. But the danger is that these plans risk making worse the challenge that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has rightly called the cause of our time – reducing the threat of nuclear war.

Nuclear reactors need enriched uranium to produce electricity. Countries making the huge investment in civilian nuclear programmes need to make sure they have supplies of this fuel. But the problem is that any facility which produces it could technically be altered to produce the more highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.

The LEU bank is the answer to the challenge of how countries can be guaranteed supplies of the uranium they need for reactors without making the proliferation of nuclear weapons more likely. It will hold, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), around 90 tonnes of low enriched uranium which can be accessed by countries if their usual market supply is disrupted, provided they do meet the IAEA clear-cut criteria of adherence to non-proliferation.

This guarantee from the independent IAEA takes away the need for countries to develop their own uranium enrichment facilities. By doing so, it both reduces costs for them and also suspicions that the civilian plants are just a cloak to hide a nuclear weapons programme. It should help cut both carbon emissions and international tensions.

Before the bank could move from drawing board to reality, it needed both funding and a secure site. Initial funding came from the Nuclear Threat Initiative – thanks to the generosity of philanthropist Warren Buffet – with the non-governmental organisation’s $50 million donation being topped by government contributions from countries such as the United States, Kuwait, Norway, the United Arab Emirates as well as the European Union.

Kazakhstan, right from the start, made clear it was ready to host the bank. As a country with extensive nuclear expertise, a track record of campaigning for nuclear non-proliferation and a trusted member of the international community, the offer ticked all the boxes and was accepted with enthusiasm by the IAEA.  The site chosen is the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has been a nuclear facility for over 60 years and meets all health, environmental and security standards, and Kazakhstan has made its own in-lind contributions to the construction of the unique storage facility.

It is fitting that the opening ceremony in Astana takes place on Aug. 29, 26 years after Kazakhstan announced it was closing the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. That surprise announcement had a much wider impact as it gave fresh momentum to efforts for a global agreement to end testing – momentum which the world urgently needs to rediscover.

That is why the true prize from the launch of the IAEA LEU Bank would be if its impact went beyond enabling countries to develop their civilian nuclear programmes without increasing fears of nuclear proliferation. We must hope that, by demonstrating what can be achieved through international cooperation, ambition and determination, it will give fresh impetus to finding agreed global solutions to common problems.