IAEA fuel bank receives first delivery of uranium

18 October 2019

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) yesterday took delivery of the first shipment of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at a purpose-built storage facility at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in eastern Kazakhstan. The delivery marks the official start of operation of the IAEA LEU Bank, aimed at providing assurance to countries about the availability of nuclear fuel.

Canisters of LEU at the IAEA fuel bank in Ust-Kamenogorsk (Image: Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Last November the IAEA announced that, following an open tender, it had signed contracts to purchase LEU from Kazakhstan's NAC Kazatomprom and France's Orano Cycle. The IAEA noted the procurement was its largest since the Agency was founded in 1957.

The first LEU shipment, from France's Orano Cycle, was transported by truck to a French port, then shipped to Russia and subsequently transported to Kazakhstan by train. The entire journey took four weeks to complete. The shipment comprised 32 cylinders of LEU - sufficient for one reload of fuel for a typical light water reactor.

"With the arrival of the first shipment, the IAEA LEU Bank is now established and operational," declared IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta. "It is the first time the Agency has undertaken a project of this legal, operational and logistical complexity."

The IAEA expects to receive the second LEU shipment, from Kazatomprom, by the end of this year.

The Bank is part of global efforts to create an assured supply of nuclear fuel to countries in the event of disruption of the commercial market or other existing LEU supply arrangements. It will provide an assurance of a supply mechanism of last resort for IAEA member states which experience a supply disruption owing to exceptional circumstances and are unable to secure nuclear fuel by other means. States wishing to purchase LEU from the Bank must have in force a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and be in good standing regarding their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The physical reserve will hold up to 90 tonnes of LEU. The IAEA-owned and -managed 880 square metre high-security warehouse in Ust-Kamenogorsk, where the material will be stored, was officially inaugurated in August 2017.

Kazakhstan in 2011 offered to host the IAEA LEU Bank in response to an IAEA request for expressions of interest. A Host State Agreement between the IAEA and government of Kazakhstan was signed on 27 August 2015. The IAEA describes the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, where the storage facility is situated, as a licensed nuclear site with commercial scale operations and the complete infrastructure to safely and securely store, transport and process LEU. The IAEA and Russia have signed a transit agreement to enable LEU to be delivered to and from the Bank.

The establishment and operation of the Bank has been fully funded by voluntary contributions from IAEA Member States and other donors totalling USD150 million, which the agency says is sufficient to cover estimated costs for 20 years of operation.

Other assurance of supply mechanisms established with IAEA approval include a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by Russia at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, Russia, and an assurance of supply guarantee for supplies of LEU enrichment services in the UK. The USA also operates its own LEU reserve.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News