A stockpile of nuclear fuel is to be set up in Russia under IAEA auspices in an effort to increase security of supply.
The IAEA has theorised that political problems could unfairly leave a country without reliable access to nuclear fuel, despite honest and peaceful use of nuclear energy.
There have been several suggestions to eliminate this remote possibility, the simplest being a reserve of low-enriched uranium objectively administered by the IAEA. Should a country face denial of supply it
"The main guarantee of
reliable nuclear fuel
supplies is a properly
where both suppliers
and consumers comply
with their obligations
Russia's proposal to the IAEA
could apply for access to the reserve - but only if it was in full compliance with IAEA requirements.
The reserve of 120 tonnes of low-enriched uranium would be enough to supply two complete fuel loads for new reactors, or around six reloads. A typical power reactor operates for 12-18 months between refuelling stops.
In the resolution passed last week, which gave new IAEA director general Yukiya Amano the authority to complete contracts with Russia and future customers, the IAEA noted that "good operation of the market already provides assurances of supply." It continued that the reserve would be "a back-up solution only" which should avoid interfering with the existing market.
The Russian suggestion itself also said, "The main guarantee of reliable nuclear fuel supplies is a properly functioning market where both suppliers and consumers comply with their obligations under commercial contracts." The reserve would only be for countries facing "insuperable difficulties of a political nature" but also in good standing with the IAEA.
However, "No one has persuasively explained, even in theory, what such circumstances might be," said World Nuclear Association director general John Ritch, a former US ambassador to the IAEA. "Any mechanism that truly fortifies the nuclear non-proliferation system warrants support, both from the nuclear industry and from governments worldwide. But just how a fuel bank would do so remains a legitimate question."
Ritch wondered whose behaviour the new facility would change: "Under what scenario would governments around the world deny nuclear fuel to a country which would then turn to those same governments, operating through the IAEA, to supply the fuel they have just denied? Why would a country operating in full compliance with the non-proliferation treaty feel the need for a fuel bank? And why would a government intending to develop a nuclear enrichment capability, whether for legitimate economic commerce or with illicit military aims, change its behaviour because of the existence of a fuel bank?"
Nevertheless, Russia has decided to go ahead, bearing the full costs of producing the low-enriched uranium as well as its storage and maintenance.