US makes nuclear fuel reserve available

22 August 2011

The USA has formally announced the availability of a reserve stockpile of low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear fuel, derived from downblended surplus military material. Meanwhile, Belarus has suspended a program to exchange high enriched uranium fuel with the US.


Titled the American Assured Fuel Supply (AFS), the reserve announced by the US Department of Energy (DoE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) sets aside a reserve of low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the downblending of surplus high-enriched uranium (HEU) from US weapons. The material is to be available as a backup fuel supply for foreign or domestic nuclear reactors in the event of a supply disruption. In so doing, according to the NNSA, it creates a vehicle for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy without exacerbating nuclear proliferation risks: if countries looking to develop nuclear power programs can be assured of a secure supply of nuclear fuel, then any need to develop uranium enrichment technology in those countries is removed.


Belarus freezes HEU exchange

Belarus has suspended its participation in projects to exchange HEU research reactor fuel with the USA in response to a new round of economic sanctions imposed by the US against Belarussian companies.


According to Belarussian national news agency BelTA, Andrei Savinykh, Chief of the Information Office of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus, said that the country had decided to freeze projects to exchange HEU fuel under the US DoE's Global Threat Reduction Initiative following the latest sanctions, although the country would remain committed to its international non-proliferation obligations.
US sanctions were applied to four Belarussian concerns on 11 August alleging involvement in human rights infringements related to political oppression. Belarus claims that the sanctions are politically motivated.


The DoE announced as long ago as 2005 its intentions to set aside 17.4 tonnes of surplus HEU to be downblended to LEU and held in reserve to deal with disruptions in nuclear fuel supply. The downblending of the 17.4 tonnes of HEU set aside for the AFS should be completed in 2012, and 230 tonnes of the 290 tonnes of LEU produced will make up the reserve, with the remainder being used to pay for the downblending and processing costs. This should leave enough for approximately six reloads for an "average" 1000 MWe reactor, NNSA says.
The reserve will be available for sale at market value in the event of demonstrated need after all other market options have been exhausted. The eligibility of would-be recipients will be assessed by a committee chaired by the NNSA's Office of Nonproliferation and International Security, with the sale of any uranium requiring final approval from the energy secretary who will also have the authority to prioritise requests.
The AFS stands alongside other initiatives to create international fuel reserves managed under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Russia already funds the storage of 120 tonnes of LEU at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre at Angarsk, available to any IAEA member state in good standing which is unable to procure fuel for political reasons. The IAEA is also drawing up a framework to establish an International Fuel Bank with the support of $50 million from the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative organization and $107 million from the US and other governments.
US energy secretary Steven Chu described the assurance of fuel supply without promoting proliferation sensitive technologies to countries looking towards nuclear power as a critical national security priority. "In addition to protecting fuel supplies for commercial power producers, the Assured Fuel Supply helps demonstrate our commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by eliminating surplus weapons uranium in a way that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
US reactor suppliers also stand to benefit from the move. "Establishing this reserve will put confidence in the US as a reliable supplier of nuclear fuel and should encourage other governments to see American nuclear vendors as preferable partners," the NNSA notes.


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News