Fuel bank site inaugurated

29 August 2017

The storage facility for a low-enriched uranium fuel bank was inaugurated today in a ceremony involving Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstana and Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The official name of the facility is IAEA LEU Bank Storage Facility. It is an 880 square metre high security warehouse at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, and is owned and managed by the IAEA.

The fuel bank exists to provide a supplier of last resort to a country using nuclear power which for some reason is unable to obtain supplies of uranium from the normal commercial market. To use the bank a country would have to be in good standing regarding their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

IAEA LEU Fuel Bank at inauguration of storage facility, August 2017 (NTI) 460x318
How the new facility looks - empty at present. (Image: NTI)

It will hold a reserve of 90 tonnes of enriched uranium, which the IAEA described as enough to power a large city for three years. It will be held in the form of gaseous uranium hexafluoride enriched to 4.95% uranium-235. IAEA already has funding and authority to purchase the uranium, and with the inauguration of the storage facility it will presumably do so shortly.

Each reactor design requires a specific design of fuel assembly so any fuel bank customer would still need to secure the right manufacturing service before usable nuclear fuel is made.

The uranium would also need to travel from storage at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Kazakhstan to a fuel manufacturing plant. Both Russia and China have signed agreements with the IAEA to guarantee safe and secure transit of uranium to and from the fuel bank.

Today, Amano said he was grateful to all donors, "whose generous financial contributions have made this project possible." The project has been funded by donations since being kick-started by American businessman Warren Buffet who pledged $50 million through the Nuclear Threat Initiative in September 2006, conditional on nations providing a further $100 million and the IAEA taking the necessary actions to approve the establishment of the reserve. The financial commitment target was met in March 2009 when Kuwait agreed to contribute $10 million to the project in addition to the US pledging $50 million, the European Union committing $32 million, the United Arab Emirates contributing $10 million and Norway committing $5 million.

IAEA LEU FUel Bank, how LEU will be stored inside, August 2017 (NTI) 460x345
How containers of LEU will be stored inside (Image: NTI)

The concept of a multilateral nuclear fuel bank has been under discussion for many years, and the IAEA convened an expert group to look at multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle in 2004. It recognised that providing assurance of nuclear fuel supply to countries that would voluntarily forego developing such technologies themselves would be a key element in limiting the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies and increasing non-proliferation assurances.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News