ASTANA – Talks over a so-called host country agreement between Kazakhstan and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the country to host an international bank of low-enriched uranium fuel under the IAEA auspices are nearing completion, the Kazakhstan foreign ministry said in a Feb. 17 statement dedicated to the 20th anniversary of its accession to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Having renounced its Soviet-era nuclear weapons legacy in the early 1990s, Kazakhstan has long been a leader in the non-proliferation and disarmament movement. When the IAEA decided to create an international nuclear fuel bank, designed as an additional element of ensuring the security of a global nuclear fuel cycle, Astana volunteered to build and maintain it as part of an effort to provide safe and internationally guaranteed access to low-enriched uranium for countries which meet IAEA requirements but for political or other reasons are unable to procure uranium fuel on the open markets.
When addressing the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April 2010, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev confirmed the country’s intention to host the fuel bank. In 2011, Kazakhstan, a country with its own developed uranium mining and processing industry, officially submitted its bid to host the LEU bank to the IAEA. The Vienna-based agency subsequently decided that Kazakhstan should be the host country for the bank.
The draft agreement between the IAEA and Kazakhstan on the establishment of the bank was originally expected to be agreed upon by the end of 2013, but the IAEA and government of Kazakhstan are still discussing technicalities of a rather complex host country agreement.
According to experts from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based nongovernmental organization whose co-chairman Sam Nunn first proposed the idea of an LEU bank to the IAEA in 2006, and from the IAEA itself, Kazakhstan is the most qualified candidate to host such a bank. The country is the world’s biggest uranium producer, with 38 percent of the global market share. Most importantly, Kazakhstan has set up a regulatory legal framework that provides control over the export and transport of nuclear materials and dual-use materials.
The bank’s location is of importance too. Kazakhstan has offered its Soviet-built Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, which is located in the eastern part of the country. This very facility meets requirements for the long-term storage as well as safe processing of nuclear materials and already meets all IAEA physical security requirements and is put under the agency’s so-called safeguards, meaning its handling of nuclear materials is monitored 24 a day full year around.
In 2012, the head of Kazakhstan’s state-owned nuclear company Kazatomprom Vladimir Shkolnik asserted that the Ulba plant is one of the safest places in the world for uranium storage since it has never experienced a nuclear leak or accident during its more than four decades of operation.
He also underlined that adding 60-70 tons of low enriched uranium fuel to the Ulba plant, which is what an eventual fuel bank will require, will only increase its capacity by approximately 5 percent, or up to 1,200 tons of low enriched uranium. “Kazakhstan’s experience in handling such materials has been a key point in promoting the country’s candidacy to host the bank,” Shkolnik stressed.
As a country with a well-developed nuclear establishment, Kazakhstan also offers a significant number of highly qualified nuclear scientific and technical personnel, which is another advantage.
Hosting the LEU bank will not only help fulfill Astana’s non-proliferation commitments, but also benefit the country. The facility will give new impetus to nuclear power development and introduce the most advanced technology by sharing experiences with developed countries. Establishing the nuclear bank will also deepen cooperation with the IAEA and its sponsoring countries.
Experts also stress that establishing the international nuclear fuel bank will not do any harm to local people or the environment. Also, it does not entail the import or production of any high-level radioactive waste. The project encompasses the acquisition of a relatively small amount of low-enriched nuclear fuel and its storage in secure facilities.
According to IAEA and other experts, low-enriched uranium is not an attractive terrorist target. Moreover, the quality of the management of nuclear materials in Kazakhstan has been repeatedly praised by the IAEA. The bank will not be a permanent source of nuclear fuel, but rather an ‘insurance mechanism’ in case of a nuclear fuel delivery disruption.