VIENNA – Ensuring the supply of nuclear fuel in the event of disruption due to political or market problems is the objective of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Low Enriched Uranium Bank, which opens this week in Kazakhstan.
The reserve, scheduled to open on Tuesday, will store 90 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU), the essential ingredient needed to make the fuel for light-water nuclear reactors, which generate electricity.
This material is usually purchased on the open market or by bilateral agreement between countries, a system the new bank does not want to disrupt.
The IAEA insists that the reserve is a “mechanism of last resort” for situations in which a UN member nation cannot access fuel by the usual means.
In fact, 90 tons represents a rather small quantity in relation to world consumption, although it would be enough to fully load a light-water reactor capable of supplying electricity to a large city for three years.
The IAEA, which manages the reserve, has established a series of strict criteria for a member state to request and purchase uranium from the bank.
First, there must be a disruption in supply “due to extraordinary circumstances” that would render the country in question unable to obtain fuel by the usual means.
In addition, the IAEA must have certified that nuclear material has not been diverted by the country in the past and that the country complies with all safety measures.
The buying country must commit to using uranium only to produce fuel, never for weapons, and not to enrich it or transfer it to third parties without the express consent of the IAEA.
If these conditions are met and the uranium is purchased at the prevailing market price, the material will be introduced into special cylinders and transferred from northern Kazakhstan, where the bank is located, to a facility where LEU can be converted into fuel.
To ensure transport, the IAEA signed an agreement with Russia in 2015 to allow the material to travel through the country.
The bank has been established at the Ulba metallurgical plant in northern Kazakhstan, and authorities are responsible for the security of the facility, even though management is the responsibility of the IAEA.
“The fuel bank is an excellent idea,” Austrian Defense Ministry adviser and University of Vienna Political Science Professor Heinz Gartner told EFE.
Gartner believes the bank ensures the peaceful use of atomic energy without the need to develop a costly enrichment program. In addition, he says, it reduces the dependency that countries without nuclear weapons have on the market.
“In both cases, the fuel bank is a reassurance, when suppliers on the international markets manipulate prices or when LEU ceases to be supplied for political reasons, for example with sanctions,” explains Gartner.
Regarding locating the bank in Kazakhstan, Gartner points out that the country is the key member of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, established to reduce the risk of an atomic attack, and this could also contribute to countries like Mongolia and Iran joining the agreement.
According to the IAEA, the Ulba plant “is a nuclear facility with commercial scale operations and complete infrastructure to store, transport and process LEU safely.”
The $150 million (128 million euros) budgeted to operate the bank over its first 10 years come from voluntary contributions. The main contributors are entrepreneur Warren Buffet ($50 million), the United States ($49 million) and the European Union (25 million euros.)
The IAEA also manages 123 tons of uranium in the Russian city of Angarsk, through an agreement with the Russian government, and participates in a mechanism led by the United Kingdom to ensure that nuclear fuel supplies are not interrupted between supplier and recipient countries.
The United States has its own nuclear fuel reserve.