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Nuclear Fuel Bank Aims to Avoid Politics, Deter Proliferation

  • Daniel Schearf

FILE - The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency flies in front of its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

FILE - The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency flies in front of its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

An International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear fuel bank set to open August 27 in eastern Kazakhstan will be aimed at guarding against energy supply disruptions and discouraging countries from developing their own nuclear weapons technology.

The agency's fuel bank, its second, will hold up to 90 tons of low-enriched uranium for energy production, according to the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations. That material will add to supplies of last resort at the other bank in Russia, for use by countries having trouble sourcing nuclear fuel because of political tensions.

“There have been some instances where supply has not been possible, or at least threatened,” said Terry Wood, the IAEA's project executive for the low-enriched uranium fuel bank.

Concerns about energy dependence were raised in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea, began supporting rebels and threatened to cut off gas supplies.

Ukraine had been getting its nuclear fuel and materials from Russia but began contracting for some of it with a nuclear supplier in the United States. Kyiv also froze a joint plan with Moscow to build a nuclear fuel factory to supply its reactors.

“From a political point of view, for [Ukraine] it would be much easier to get this material from Kazakhstan,” said Anton Khlopkov, director of Russia's Center for Energy and Security Studies and editor of the Nuclear Club Journal.

The Russian government pays for the uranium reserves stored in the IAEA's International Uranium Enrichment Center in Argansk, Siberia, while donors are funding the bank in Kazakhstan. U.S. public and private funds covered two-thirds of the cost, and the rest was paid for by the European Union, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Norway.

The fuel reserves dissuade countries from enriching their own uranium, a costly process that could also be used for making weapons-grade material.

Full IAEA safeguards and inspections apply to both the Russian and Kazakhstan fuel banks, as well as the uranium taken out by members.

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