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IAEA Chief Calls for International Nuclear Fuel Bank

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is calling for the establishment of a nuclear fuel bank to provide more countries that want to pursue nuclear energy with the necessary fuel without raising questions about military uses. This way, he says, they won't be tempted to develop the dual use facilities needed to make it themselves. His comments came in Washington Monday at an annual conference on non-proliferation sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Nuclear energy reuires reprocessed or enriched material. Countries that want to produce their own fuel need to develop nuclear enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

This, though, according to Mr. ElBaradei and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Joseph Cirincione, is the heart of the problem. Reprocessing and enrichment facilities also have military uses.

ElBaradei: "That means they are a few months away from a nuclear weapon."

Cirincione: "Because the same facilities that can enrich fuel can also be used to enrich material used for bombs."

ElBaradei: "Absolutely."

In order to discourage countries pursuing nuclear energy from establishing individual enrichment and reprocessing facilities, Mr. ElBaradei called for what he described as a multi-national fuel bank. Participating countries pledge not to develop dual-use facilities in exchange for the needed nuclear fuel.

"Every country that would like to get the fuel, that would like to get the technology, the reactor, will get that, but not necessarily developing their own enrichment facility. And assurance of supply mechanism should be reliable, should be apolitical, should be based solely on non-proliferation criteria," he said.

The IAEA would manage the fuel bank and ensure that participants follow the rules. Mr. ElBaradei says these guidelines will include a 10-year global moratorium on establishing new enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

He added that reactions to the proposal have been encouraging, and that there have been initial commitments from the world's two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia.

"This is material coming out of weapons, frankly, from the military sector. So, it's a good way to put it to good use. Down blend it. Use it as part of the fuel bank," he said.

Mr. ElBaradei said Russia plans to provide an unspecified amount of fuel for the bank. U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman detailed the U.S. commitment of highly-enriched uranium, or HEU, which could be converted into low-enriched uranium, or LEU, which is used to generate power.

"Last month, I announced plans to reserve up to 17 metric tons of HEU to help establish a fuel reserve, to support nuclear supply assurances. When blended down, under the IAEA verification, this material would result in approximately 290 metric tons of LEU, or enough fuel for 10 reactor core reloads," he said.

Rapid economic growth around the world is leading to a growing demand for energy, which is why many policymakers are increasingly looking to nuclear power to help meet some of their country's energy demand.

Both Mr. ElBaradei and Secretary Bodman say one key challenge is how to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, while also ensuring that nuclear power does not provide cover for a covert nuclear weapons program.