IAEA Board Approves Agreement on Housing LEU Bank in Kazakhstan

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One of the workshops of the Ulba plant.

ASTANA – The Board of Governors of theVienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved a host-state agreement on June 12 between the agency and the government of Kazakhstan on hosting an international low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel bank in the country, an offer Kazakhstan first made in 2010, according to an IAEA announcement on June 12. The board also approved a transit agreement with Russia on moving nuclear materials through its territory.

The bank is intended to assure countries with peaceful nuclear programmes of a ready supply of LEU in case they cannot access it on the commercial market or otherwise. It is intended to provide IAEA member states with confidence in a steady and predictable supply of fuel even if other supply mechanisms are disrupted, the IAEA announcement explained. However, a key principle of the bank is that it must not distort the commercial market, and it does not affect the rights of IAEA member states to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle facilities, the IAEA said. Member States wishing to purchase LEU from the IAEA LEU bank will need to have a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement in force with the agency, among other criteria.

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In this recent photo, Alexander Khodanov, UMP director of sales, shows the lack of radiation from cylinders containing low-enriched uranium that are currently used at UMP and that will be used for the storage of LEU as part of the IAEA bank.

This will be the first international fuel bank not under the control of an individual country, the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a supporter and co-funder of the initiative said in a June 12 press release.

The LEU bank will hold a reserve of up to 90 metric tonnes of LEU, which the IAEA announcement says is sufficient to power a large city for three years using a light-water reactor. The bank will be housed in the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen in eastern Kazakhstan, but will be operated and managed by the IAEA, the agency said. Kazakhstan’s regulatory and legal framework will govern security on the plant, and will meet IAEA standards. The bank will also be subject to IAEA safeguards, the agency announced. “The Ulba plant has been handling and storing nuclear material, including LEU, safely and securely for more than 60 years,” the IAEA announcement added.

The IAEA LEU Bank is fully funded by voluntary contributions, the IAEA announced. Approximately $150 million has been provided by donors to establish and operate the LEU bank for at least 10 years, the agency said.

“This is a significant milestone in global nuclear cooperation that will enable peaceful uses of nuclear energy while reducing the risks of proliferation and catastrophic terrorism,” said former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which first proposed the initiative to establish such a bank in 2006 and which provided the seed money of $50 million for its establishment. “If the dozens of countries interested in nuclear energy also choose to pursue uranium enrichment, the risk of proliferation of dangerous nuclear materials and weapons would grow beyond the tipping point. This has been our experience with Iran. The IAEA LEU bank now gives countries an alternative to that choice and direction.”

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An aerial view of the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskeme (Ust-Kamenogorsk). The plant has been dealing with nuclear materials for more than 60 years.

American business magnate Warren Buffet, an NTI advisor, provided that $50 million to start funding the bank, the NTI said.

“The LEU fuel bank is a much-needed investment in a safer world and a valuable tool in helping to prevent future nuclear dangers,” said Buffett, according to the NTI release. “I am delighted that we are so close to making the long-discussed idea of an LEU fuel bank a reality.” The NTI and Buffet first made their $50 million commitment in 2006, with the stipulation that the IAEA receive an additional $100 million, the NTI reported. Additional funds were provided by the United States, the EU, Kuwait, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan which provides both monetary and in-kind contributions.

“We are very grateful to our funding partners and to Warren Buffett for their generosity and resolve,” said Nunn, according to the NTI news release. “We are also appreciative of the leadership shown by the IAEA and its Board of Governors and the government of Kazakhstan and President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan has made tremendous efforts to reduce nuclear dangers over many decades.”

The next steps needed to finalise the process of establishing the bank are the signature of the host-state agreement between the IAEA and Kazakhstan, which is expected in late August, according to the NTI, and then the ratification of the agreement by the country’s Parliament. The transit agreement with Russia will also need to be signed. The IAEA and Kazakhstan are also close to completing two related technical agreements, the NTI reported.

The LEU bank in Kazakhstan is one of a series of efforts to create secure supplies of nuclear fuel for countries in case the open market or other supply mechanisms are disrupted, the IAEA said. Other mechanisms include a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by Russia at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre and a U.K. assurance of supply guaranty for supplies of LEU enrichment services. The United States also has its own LEU reserve, the IAEA said.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was left with the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, which it renounced and dismantled over the first decades of its independence with the help of the United States and Russia and the funding of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Programme. The country has since consistently campaigned for an end to nuclear testing and supports a number of non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives.

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