Why a nuclear fuel bank matters

Why a nuclear fuel bank matters
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The multinational agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is one of the most consequential non-proliferation moments in recent history. One byproduct of the current public debate on the Iran nuclear deal is an improved understanding of how states acquire nuclear weapons and what it takes to stop or dissuade them from taking this fateful step. Accounts of actions taken by Iran and the negotiations of the past several years have served as primers for many observers who had never contemplated what a centrifuge was or fully considered the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

The Iran case underscores the continuing need for innovative, multilateral cooperation on ways to reduce proliferation risks and temptations. One such effort that may help prevent future proliferation cases is now coming to fruition.  

On Aug. 27, in Astana, Kazakhstan, officials opened an international nuclear fuel bank, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and hosted by Kazakhstan, to secure, house and supply low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. The existence of an LEU fuel bank is a significant step forward in the evolution of non-proliferation policy, and it will make the world a safer place.

The goals of the IAEA are to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy by member states, to verify that nuclear energy is not used for military purposes and to promote high standards for nuclear safety. The nuclear fuel bank directly supports these goals and supports the broader framework of global non-proliferation policy, including dismantling existing weapons and preventing the development of new weapons, technology and materials.

The bank will be owned and controlled by the IAEA, not by any one nation. It will guarantee to be a supplier of last resort to any country that needs fuel for a peaceful nuclear power generating reactor but can’t obtain it on the open market. The bank will have strict controls to ensure the uranium is not diverted to a weapons program.

With this supply assurance, countries that want to develop a nuclear electricity program will have no reason — or excuse — to build their own uranium enrichment facilities, which could be used to manufacture weapons-grade material.

A goal of the LEU fuel bank agreement is to prevent other countries from following Iran’s playbook to becoming a nuclear power. The IAEA fuel bank matters because it will expose and undermine the claim of potential proliferators, like Iran, who assert that domestic nuclear enrichment is necessary for civilian energy production.

The fuel bank’s guarantee of available nuclear fuel in international markets will complicate claims of any regime that hopes to edge up to a nuclear weapon by enriching and reprocessing uranium ostensibly for civilian use. In such circumstances, the existence of the fuel bank is likely to undergird more rapid and unified engagement by the international community in challenging the regime’s claims.  

The countries and organizations that have helped create the IAEA fuel bank, including the European Union, Kuwait, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and the Nuclear Threat Initiative share a common vision for nuclear security. And so does the host country of Kazakhstan, which, as a Soviet atomic testing ground, fully understands the horrors of nuclear weapons.

 Kazakhstan and its leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, worked under the Nunn-Lugar program to relinquish voluntarily 1,410 nuclear weapons after the breakup of the Soviet Union. More recently, in 2006, it established the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone to further its commitment. The legitimacy of the IAEA-run fuel bank is enhanced by Kazakhstan’s non-proliferation history.

For more than half a century, the nuclear non-proliferation regime has been successful in limiting the expansion of nuclear weapons, technologies and materials.  Currently, fewer than a dozen countries possess nuclear weapons, and since 1992, the number of countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials has been cut in half — from 50 to 25.   

Yet the basic premise of the nuclear fuel bank — to secure nuclear fuels, to prevent nuclear weapons and proliferation and to encourage safety and security — remains as relevant and essential as ever. With the world facing crisis situations, such as Iran, and threat of terrorism a constant concern, it is critical that the global community has every effective tool at its disposal and fully supports the IAEA’s LEU fuel bank.

Lugar served in the Senate from 1977 to 2013. He is the president of The Lugar Center, which addresses critical issues including global food security, foreign aid effectiveness, WMD nonproliferation and bipartisan governance.