New Ideas to Curb Spread of Nuclear Technology — Multilateral Fuel Banks

By Senthil Ratnasabapathy

As Iran readies for another round of talks with western powers over its controversial nuclear programme, there is debate within the international non-proliferation circles about the best strategy or strategies to prevent another Iran-type situation from developing.

The debate has been necessitated by a number of developments, ranging from the availability of once confidential technology information through the Internet and the emergence of non-state actors such as Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir Khan, who act in the interest of state actors but involve in illicit activities often using governmental resources to transfer sensitive technology, to the open seeking of nuclear power and its technology in a world where the need to look beyond the fossil fuel sources for power is ever growing.

Gundremmingen NPP in Germany

Gundremmingen NPP in Germany

NPT’s Failures

And the 1970 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which promised to prevent spread of nuclear weapons technology, stands in a very fragile fundament. The NPT divides the world into two groups – the so-called nuclear haves (which are the five official weapons states, Britain, China, France, Russia and the USA) and the so-called not-haves, which includes the rest of the world.

However, there are some other countries that are known to have nuclear weapons – Israel, India, Pakistan and of late, North Korea. Their ability to develop nuclear weapons technology despite international sanctions has shown that the NPT is a not effective tool in maintaining the treaty’s, rather unfair, set-up of a two-group world.

Nations do not have to engage in developing their nuclear weapons technology explicitly; rather, they could use their nuclear power sector as a smokescreen. Some analysts have pointed out that once a country knows how to enrich natural uranium to uranium containing 4-5% of U235 (called low enriched uranium or LEU), which is the composition needed for power reactors, enriching the natural uranium to more than 90% U235 to use in weapons is not a long road ahead.

And according to some reports, as many as forty countries possess the technology to enrich uranium and this is indeed a nightmare for the non-proliferation system.

New Ideas to Curb Spread of Nuclear Enrichment Technology

Since early part of this decade, a number of creative ideas to ensure the control of enrichment technology have been put forward, as governments and experts realised the traditional way of controlling the spread of nuclear technology is not working.

Among the dozen-or so ideas floating around towards this end range from having internationally or multi-nationally controlled enrichment facilities to setting up an international system for access of the nuclear fuel.

Global Nuclear Fuel Bank

The second idea includes setting up an international LEU bank, with more than 60 tons of LEU.

And the Russian Federation is also working on an idea of making available LEU through the UN nuclear agency, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to its member nations.

Another idea mooted is that the operation and monitoring of enrichment and other operations would be multi-national. That is, for example, a Canadian nuclear enrichment facility would jointly be operated by, say Russia or France, This way, the assumption is, there will not be any hidden agenda by one country.

The current debate about global warming has targeted attention towards new fuel sources, and nuclear, though expensive, is considered one option, and as such, the debate about controlling spread of nuclear technology has attained a sense of urgency, and the IAEA LEU bank sounds very promising.

But challenges remain. For example, the basis for any such reserve bank is that non nuclear weapons states countries forego the desire to develop their own enrichment technologies. It is a touchy subject as many consider this right to be part of their sovereign right for ‘peaceful’ nuclear technology.

The second challenge is to overcome concerns by some countries – such as Iran, Libya and even India – that do not necessarily have a good relationship with major powers and, therefore, are worried the supply could be used as a political blackmail.

The IAEA has time and again asserted that any such bank under its control should have a transparent control and free of politics. But whether that is possible in a real world is a question.

And the concept of multi-lateral enrichment facilities are also looked with some concern by some countries, as there are national security and technology related issues that need to be sorted out.

Ultimately, there is also the question whether nations are willing to allow an international agency such as the IAEA to be the controller of so much nuclear fuel.

For more information on the status of LEU bank negotiations, read the IAEA’s quarterly bulletin 51-1.

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