UN pushes ahead with multinational enrichment plan to prevent nuclear proliferation

Nuclear fuel pellets

23 March 2007 – Pushing ahead with efforts to set up a multinational framework for uranium enrichment to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation and the possibility of their falling into the hands of terrorists, the United Nations atomic watchdog agency is exploring with Russia the possible establishment of an international enrichment centre in Siberia.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Director General Yury Sokolov led the UN side in talks this week with Russian officials at the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex, a manufacturer of low-enriched uranium, which Russia is proposing should be the site of an international centre.

Low enriched uranium is the fuel for nuclear power plants, but enriched to a higher degree it can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Mr. Sokolov told a press conference that the Agency’s main point of concern about proposals discussed with Russia was provision of a mechanism to ensure that States which have been isolated for political reasons continue to receive nuclear fuel. Russian officials told the press conference that the talks had made positive progress.

Russia is currently in negotiations with Kazakhstan to establish a joint enrichment facility at the Angarsk complex, which is north of Irkutsk in south eastern Siberia.

Both IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei and Russian President Vladimir Putin have proposed putting enrichment under multinational control to reduce proliferation risks. The system would provide assurance of supply to States considering developing nuclear power and avoid the need for them to build their own nuclear fuel production capability.

The so-called front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, when fuel is enriched, as well as the back end, when spent fuel is reprocessed, provide points that pose proliferation risks because material can be potentially diverted and used to produce weapons.

A cornerstone of Mr. ElBaradei’s proposal is a fuel bank of last resort that would offer users of the system the insurance of guaranteed delivery if their regular supplies were interrupted.

“The longer we delay in placing sensitive nuclear operations under multinational control, the more new countries will seek to build such facilities,” he said in a speech last year, calling for a unified international approach “so that no one country would have exclusive control over the most sensitive parts of the fuel cycle.”

In September, the Nuclear Threat Initiative donated $50 million provided by United States billionaire Warren Buffet to the proposed fuel bank on condition that the contribution is matched by an amount of $100 million.

The proposals for international uranium enrichment centres come amid a revival of interest in nuclear power as a means of generating electricity and fears about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Mr. ElBaradei is to present a paper about supply assurance to the next meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors in June.

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