ASTANA – Following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board approving an agreement with Kazakhstan on establishing a low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank in the country, a group of Kazakh experts confirmed that the idea had international support and would not exact a high cost from Kazakhstan, in addition to explaining other details of the project at a June 15 Central Communications Service press briefing in Astana.
Key speakers at the briefing were the Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador-at-large Barlybai Sadykov, Vice Chairman of the Atomic Energy Committee of the Ministry for Investments and Development Timur Zhantikin, Sales Director of the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) Alexander Khodanov, Department Director for Nuclear Fuel Cycle Projects of Kazatomprom Sergey Krechetov and Director of the National Nuclear Centre’s Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology Sergey Lukashenko. Sadykov noted that it was President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s initiative to offer Kazakhstan as the bank host, and confirmed that the LEU bank will be housed in the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, northeast Kazakhstan, which has dealt with and stored nuclear material for decades. Sadykov also emphasised that international donors including the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the governments of the U.S., the EU, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Norway will bear the financial burden of launching the bank.
“The IAEA’s choice of the Ulba Metallurgical Plant [as the site of LEU bank] was based on the company’s experience in working with the relevant technologies, the presence of trained personnel and extensive experience in working with nuclear fuel cycles,” Sadykov explained.
The purpose of the LEU is to assure IAEA Member States of their ability to obtain nuclear fuel in a predictable manner, in particular if there is an unforeseen disruption in existing fuel supply arrangements. Once established, the IAEA LEU Bank will provide assurances of supply.
According to the speakers at the conference, Kazakhstan will only bear the costs of storing the nuclear material.
“The costs will actually be minimal. We will bear the cost of maintaining the premises, electricity and heating,” said Khodanov, representing the Ulba Plant.
The placement of the bank in Ust-Kamenogorsk has been assessed by both Kazakhstan and the IAEA and has been found by both to pose no threat, in terms of security, environmental damage or other, to the population of the region.
LEU is not radioactive waste, as some have speculated, Sadykov said, and the material is of no interest to terrorists, as it cannot be used to manufacture a nuclear weapon without additional enrichment, which requires other infrastructure and technologies.
Commenting on concerns raised by environmentalists, the experts said storing the LEU will not pose any threat to the ecology of East Kazakhstan.
“Leaking [of material] is unlikely. … In terms of the radiation threat, this low-enriched uranium is virtually identical to the uranium we mine in Kazakhstan. In other words, the danger from storing an additional 60–80 tonne s of uranium would be no more than from any other storage space on any mine,” said Lukashenko. Sadykov also said that hosting the LEU bank reflects the political and practical interests of Kazakhstan, and that it represents a major contribution by Kazakhstan to strengthening the regime of non-proliferation and regional and international security.
The formal signing of the host-state agreement by the IAEA and Kazakhstan is expected in late August, Sadykov announced. Following that, the agreement will be sent to Parliament for ratification and then signed by the President. Zhantikin estimated that it would take up to 18 months or two years before the first IAEA-owned LEU can be delivered to the Ulba Plant for storage in the bank.
On June 11 in Vienna, the IAEA Board of Governors approved a host-state agreement between the IAEA and the government of Kazakhstan for the country to host the international LEU fuel bank to provide countries with an assurance of LEU supply for peaceful purposes.
The board approved the host state agreement with Kazakhstan and a Transit Agreement with Russia for the transport of the IAEA LEU through its territory to and from the IAEA LEU Bank.