Intelligent Energy

A nuclear fuel bank: Is the world too unsafe for it to fail?

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Facilities that enrich for civilian use can serve a dual purpose to kick start weapons programs, and that raises the possibility that nuclear technology wouldn't be used solely for peaceful means.

An international fuel bank would guarantee a supply of enriched uranium to countries that forgo the right to do it themselves.

Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower advocated for establishing a fuel bank for low-enriched uranium (LEU) before the Cold War weapon race ignited. Facilities that enrich for civilian use can serve a dual purpose to kick start weapons programs, and that raises the possibility that nuclear technology wouldn't be used solely for peaceful means.

The idea of an international bank program still carries favor with developed nations that seek to advance nonproliferation as access to nuclear power expands worldwide. The banks sounds attractive: Countries that have nascent nuclear programs would be offered a guaranteed fuel supply.

However, there are potential drawbacks that could limit commercial activities and suspicions that the bank's objectives may be nothing more than imperialism. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this week published position papers from a sampling of nuclear scientists in the developing world exploring those issues and why a bank might be attractive.

Here are highlights from the contributors:

Ta Minh Tuan, assistant to Vietnam's deputy prime minister and an associate professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam:

  • Western nations are working hard to establish a bank
  • Customer nations don't need to spend huge sums of money to build enrichment plants
  • Less physical protection of nuclear materials is required at fewer places
  • Public support for nuclear plants might be low in customer nations due to the Fukushima disaster
  • A bank would not be operational right away, and would not eliminate all proliferation concerns
  • Customer nations may ask whether the bank will only serve to impose the will of the supplier

Ramamurti Rajaraman, emeritus professor of physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, vice president of the Indian National Science Academy, and a member of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board:

  • The bank would prove beneficial to countries that do not wish to purpose weaponization but for want nuclear power
  • IAEA guaranteeing the availability of LEU gives the bank credibility
  • A bank could limit enrichment activities that some nations consider to be legitimate commercial opportunities
  • It could be viewed as the "haves" trying to keep the "have nots" out of their "club," and upset former colonies still stinging from colonialism
  • Nuclear power helps meet rising electricity demands and allows nations to demonstrate technological prowess
  • A geopolitical powerblock could use the bank for political blackmail
  • Two proposes fuel banks have strong "international flavor" and private funding

Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission:

  • Customer nations could have increased confidence that their fuel supply will not be interrupted if a bank is established in a reliable and nondiscriminatory way
  • A bank might not offer protection from price volatility
  • A bank could be designed to only provide fuel when there's disruptions in the normal nuclear supply chain
  • Customer nations might fear requirements being imposed upon them that exceed the purview of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
  • Forgoing their right to enrichment might make some customer nations believe that Western nations are interfering with their ability to develop a "self-sustaining, economically feasible nuclear energy program"
  • Deny customer the right to reprocess fuel could have the same effect of infringing on nations' rights
  • A bank program would be designed to help member states develop comprehensive nuclear programs that are "suitable for their domestic needs"
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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure