x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UN expected to approve nuclear fuel bank

The International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to adopt a $150 million, UAE-backed plan.

The UN nuclear watchdog is expected to approve a fuel supply plan backed by the UAE next month, which is seen as a way to prevent the spread of weapons technology.

The stalled proposal to set up a US$150 million (Dh550.9m) nuclear fuel bank run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which countries could turn to if their regular supplies were cut, is now likely to be adopted at a meeting of the 35-nation governing board on December 2 and 3, say European diplomats.

"I expect a vote and I expect it to be passed," one diplomat told Reuters in Vienna, where the IAEA is based.

The IAEA has a mandate to promote peaceful uses of the atom. In September, the UAE was elected to its board after contributing $10m towards the creation of the fuel bank in 2008.

Abu Dhabi's commitment to non-proliferation and transparency in its pursuit of nuclear energy has won global plaudits and been singled out as a "gold standard" for other emerging economies. The emirate plans to build four reactors at a cost of $20 billion within a decade.

Proponents of the fuel bank plan say it could help to meet growing demand from dozens of countries for technical help in launching atomic energy without increasing the risk of weapons proliferation.

The uranium needed to fuel nuclear reactors can also be enriched to high levels and provide material for bombs, making such fuel cycle technology especially sensitive.

Guaranteed fuel supply "is one tool that allows states entry into the nuclear arena without requiring investment in extensive infrastructure development", said one western envoy.

"It certainly contributes positively towards preventing the proliferation of nuclear material," he said.

Iran's disputed enrichment programme, which the West fears is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, has also helped to push the idea up the agenda after decades on the political back-burner. The UAE has agreed to forego enrichment, opting instead to import fuel, to demonstrate its commitment to non-proliferation of weapons technology.

But some developing states are concerned that a fuel bank might limit their right to sovereign nuclear energy capabilities, even if western diplomats say the proposal makes clear that this would not be the case.

"Everybody knows that this is a proliferation initiative, that it is being done for the explicit purpose of making sure that some countries do not develop the fuel cycle," said one diplomat from a developing country.

"Why push through something which people are not sure about?"

But a European official said the fuel bank was a "positive way to reduce the risks of weapons proliferation" that did not restrict any country's right to pursue civilian fuel technology.

The proposal by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA, envisages a bank, possibly located in Kazakhstan, buying 60 to 80 tonnes of low-enriched uranium (LEU) using $150m in member donations and offering it to states at market prices.

Barack Obama, the US president, has backed the idea and the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative has pledged $50m to help make it a reality.

"This proposed LEU bank is a key priority for President Obama as part of his overall effort to increase to countries around the world access to peaceful nuclear energy," said Robert Wood, the deputy head of the US mission to the IAEA.

"We view fuel assurances as an important confidence-building measure."

The IAEA has been considering several plans under which states would be provided with enriched uranium for their civilian nuclear programmes if their deliveries were halted for political reasons and they can show a perfect non-proliferation record.

Last November its board backed a complementary offer by Russia, a major uranium producer, to host such a facility.

One European diplomat stressed that the fuel reserve would be used only if necessary and it would not replace commercial suppliers. Some analysts forecast a uranium shortage in 2013 because of increased demand from China, India and elsewhere.

"It may not be used at all for many years," he said.

* with Reuters