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Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

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Development and Disarmament Roundtable

Is a nuclear fuel bank a good investment?

Among the fundamental challenges facing the nonproliferation project is that highly enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons can be produced in the same facilities that make low-enriched uranium for civilian reactors. One approach to this problem is to offer nations a guaranteed supply of low-enriched uranium through a fuel bank. But in potential customer nations, enthusiasm for a fuel bank has not been universal. Below, Ta Minh Tuan of Vietnam, Khaled Toukan of Jordan, and Ramamurti Rajaraman of India address the question: "From the customer's perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of an international nuclear fuel bank for supplying developing countries with low-enriched uranium?"

Editor's note: This introduction was updated on September 10, 2012, to correct details about the structure of international fuel banks.

Round 1

08/28/2012 - 05:55

Calculating the value of an international fuel bank

Ta Minh Tuan
08/29/2012 - 05:37

For a fuel bank, fairness is paramount

Khaled Toukan
08/30/2012 - 06:21

Despite qualms, fuel banks hold promise

Ramamurti Rajaraman

Round 2

10/09/2012 - 04:56

National decisions, national interest

Ta Minh Tuan
10/11/2012 - 03:42

Despite assurances, doubts persist

Khaled Toukan
10/18/2012 - 05:31

Assurances, but no sense of assurance

Ramamurti Rajaraman

Round 3

10/25/2012 - 04:47

Agreement, disagreement, and a path forward

Ta Minh Tuan
11/01/2012 - 04:53

Proceed, but with caution

Khaled Toukan
11/08/2012 - 06:17

Convergence and nuance

Ramamurti Rajaraman

Round 1

08/28/2012 - 05:55

Calculating the value of an international fuel bank

In recent years the idea of establishing an international nuclear fuel bank has gained a lot of attention, with the United States and other Western nations promoting the concept and trying hard to make it reality. A rough example of how a fuel bank might work is provided by the 2009 agreement between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); under that agreement, Abu Dhabi agreed not to exercise its right to enrich and reprocess nuclear material, while the United States agreed to furnish low-enriched uranium to the UAE and also to provide nuclear cooperation in various forms. But in the developing world's political circles, an international fuel bank is not a particularly popular idea.

Western academics and government officials who advocate for a fuel bank often cite the need to close loopholes in the international nonproliferation regime. They argue that a country's ability under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel creates a risk of weapons proliferation, and that reducing this risk must be treated as a high priority. (Some experts, it should be noted, maintain that a fuel bank would not succeed in its primary goal of limiting proliferation, and in fact would do the opposite.)

But what are the advantages of a fuel bank that would motivate potential customers to participate in it? Proponents point out several. First, they say, customers would not have to build their own enrichment plants, and this would save large amounts of money that could be devoted to other purposes. In 2008, the cost of constructing a new enrichment facility was estimated at between $250 million and $3.3 billion, depending on factors such as capacity and location. This is by no means a trivial amount, especially for developing nations facing fiscal constraints and relying on foreign lending or other forms of assistance to finance the development of their nuclear sectors. Especially for newcomers to the nuclear industry, a fuel bank could improve the economic viability of nuclear power.

A second argument made in favor of a fuel bank involves nuclear security: An international fuel bank would reduce a customer nation's concerns about providing physical protection for its nuclear materials. Developing countries tend to face greater difficulties than developed ones in ensuring that their nuclear facilities are secure. A fuel bank would allow a country to focus resources on the security of its nuclear power plants instead of devoting a portion of its resources to enrichment facilities.

A third point in favor of a fuel bank is that, in many countries, public support for building nuclear power plants has diminished significantly since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Fukushima renewed the public debate over nuclear energy and has forced some governments to reconsider their plans to introduce nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. Those governments that wish to continue their nuclear programs must take into account public anxiety -- and a fuel bank could help in that regard by assuaging, at least to some degree, concerns about the safety of nuclear facilities.

But customer nations must consider the potential problems of a fuel bank, as well. One such problem is that nations that renounce the right to enrich their own fuel would be left in a difficult position if market prices for low-enriched uranium increased sharply. In 1997, the market price for a kilogram of low-enriched uranium for use in research reactors was about $5,400. By 2005, that price had risen to about $8,800 -- an increase of over 60 percent in eight years. For a nation with no capacity to enrich fuel on its own, cost increases on that scale would imply higher prices for the electricity that nuclear power plants produce, which in turn would reduce the competitiveness of nuclear power in comparison with other sources of energy. Furthermore, it is not clear how much room would exist for customers to negotiate prices with supplier states if an international fuel bank came into being. All in all, depending entirely on foreign fuel to power a nuclear reactor -- and cutting off the possibility of doing otherwise -- seems economically risky.

Another set of potential problems concerns nuclear fuel as a national security issue. Any country that maintains a nuclear power sector but forswears its right to uranium enrichment becomes potentially exposed to international pressure; it has less space in which to conduct foreign policy. That is, if supplier and customer nations experience diplomatic tensions or even become antagonists, a threat to cut off the supply of nuclear fuel would pose an acute risk to the customer state's national security. Concerns such as these may sound far-fetched to some, but policy makers and policy planners must foresee worst-case scenarios.

Even if a nuclear fuel bank were to become a reality, it would not become operational right away. In the meantime, a prospective customer must ask itself some basic questions: Is an international fuel bank really necessary? Does the country need one? Does it want one? Would a fuel bank merely impose the will of a supplier on a customer?

In any event, countries must keep in mind that an international nuclear fuel bank could not be expected to eliminate all proliferation concerns related to the nuclear fuel cycle. A fuel bank is intended to help reduce proliferation threats -- but it is only one of many measures employed in that effort.

08/29/2012 - 05:37

For a fuel bank, fairness is paramount

The basic idea behind an international fuel bank is that it would, in a reliable and nondiscriminatory way, make emergency supplies of market-priced low-enriched uranium available to states that sign up to participate. States that opt for membership in a fuel bank would gain increased confidence that their access to reactor-grade fuel would not be interrupted. In return, they would renounce the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel on their own. Such an arrangement could be appropriate for a number of states. But for others, it might be less than ideal.

Nations might harbor several objections to a fuel bank. First, a fuel bank might guarantee a supply of low-enriched fuel at market prices, but it would not provide protection against price volatility. A fuel bank would be designed to provide fuel only when the need for it arose -- that is, when disruptions occurred in nuclear fuel's normal supply chain. But any such disruption would imply higher market prices, so the existence of a fuel bank would not stop the cost of electricity generation from increasing accordingly. (It should be noted, however, that the cost of nuclear fuel accounts for only a small proportion of the total expenses of operating a nuclear power plant.)

Second, some states might be reluctant to sign up for an international fuel bank out of concern that doing so would impose requirements on them beyond those mandated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nations asked to impose a moratorium on establishing new nuclear facilities for enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing might well perceive such restrictions as infringements on their sovereign rights. (It is my understanding that existing facilities would be allowed to run through the end of their lifetimes.) After all, if a state has become a party to the NPT, complied with all the requirements of the treaty, and acquiesced to a Safeguards Agreement that subjects its nuclear facilities and activities to international monitoring, why should it relinquish its right to carry out the various processes associated with the fuel cycle?

Third, signatories to the treaty may feel that some proposed fuel-bank requirements, such as that customer nations forfeit their right to domestic uranium enrichment, interfere with their ability to develop a self-sustaining, economically feasible nuclear energy program. Jordan, my own country, has pursued nuclear power in order to achieve greater energy independence, secure a more reliable source of fuel, utilize indigenous uranium deposits, and avoid the high costs of generating electricity from hydrocarbons. Requiring a state such as Jordan to forego domestic enrichment and to rely instead on international suppliers for enrichment services asks it to forfeit significant opportunities for economic growth.

Denying fuel-bank customers the ability to reprocess spent fuel could have much the same effect -- that of infringing on nations' rights, as provided for in the NPT, to pursue comprehensive, peaceful nuclear energy programs. In my view, signatories to the treaty should be encouraged to reprocess spent fuel, albeit under strict verification procedures. This would allow for spent fuel to be stabilized and waste to be reduced; for nuclides to be reclaimed that could be useful for additional power production and in medical and industrial applications; and for research and development activities to be carried out, perhaps leading to enhancements in the safety and performance of nuclear reactors. In any case, restricting such activities to the nuclear weapon states, as well as a select number of non-nuclear weapon states, would seem to create an unfair monopoly in the supply chain for nuclear fuel.

A fuel bank need not withhold from nations pursuing peaceful nuclear energy programs the support that the NPT guarantees them. Unfortunately, the fuel-bank concept as it is currently envisioned appears discriminatory in nature. It fails to recognize the long-term compliance with the treaty that most signatory states have demonstrated and, further, infringes on these states' sovereign right to pursue comprehensive, peaceful nuclear energy programs.

However, it should be possible to formulate the fuel-bank idea in such a way that compliance with the NPT is strengthened and non-nuclear weapon states are rewarded for adhering to the mandates of the treaty. Many of the weaknesses in the fuel-bank concept as it now exists could be eliminated, or significantly ameliorated, if it included a basic principle that underlies both "Atoms for Peace" and Article IV of the treaty: to promote safe, secure, and peaceful nuclear technologies. Therefore, I strongly urge that any fuel bank be designed to allow member states to develop comprehensive nuclear energy programs that are suitable for their domestic needs. Such programs must be carried out transparently, of course, and under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But signatories to the NPT should not be asked to forego their sovereign rights.

08/30/2012 - 06:21

Despite qualms, fuel banks hold promise

The idea of establishing a fuel bank for low-enriched uranium (LEU) was conceived as long ago as President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program. The primary idea behind a fuel bank at that time was to encourage nations to adopt civilian nuclear energy programs. But due to Cold War tensions, little progress was made toward a fuel bank until the new millennium began. Over the years, the main motivation for establishing a repository of LEU shifted to nuclear nonproliferation: Signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are permitted to maintain enrichment facilities for peaceful nuclear energy programs, but the same facilities might be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.

This nonproliferation motif may be one reason that fuel bank proposals are unpopular among many potential customer nations. Because most non-nuclear weapon states in the developed world already maintain, or otherwise have access to, enrichment plants -- as, for instance, through Urenco, a consortium with British, Dutch, and German ownership -- a fuel bank's most likely customers are developing nations. Many of these countries, gradually progressing out of the "developing" category in both economic and technological terms, now feel ready to acquire and operate nuclear reactors. They are attracted to nuclear energy partly because their electricity requirements have increased and partly because they would like to demonstrate their emerging technological capabilities.

But from an ideological and strategic perspective, developing nations tend to view fuel bank proposals with suspicion -- as yet more examples of the nuclear "haves" trying to keep the "have-nots" out of their club (rather like NPT itself). Many developing countries that suffered during the colonial era can be prone to interpreting Western initiatives, sometimes with justification and sometimes out of knee-jerk paranoia, as attempts by past oppressors to keep them down technologically and militarily.

At a more concrete level, some developing countries fear that a fuel bank owned or controlled by a power bloc or an individual nation might choose not to provide fuel to a specific country for geopolitical reasons. That is, LEU might be used as a tool of political blackmail -- something with which producers of nuclear fuel could extract cooperation from buyers.

Such fears should be allayed by the fact that two proposed fuel banks -- one of which is already stocked with uranium (though, to my knowledge, it has no customers yet) and the other of which is at an advanced stage of development -- have a strong international flavor, despite originating with the two Cold War superpowers. In March 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed an agreement with Russia to establish a reserve of LEU at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, Russia. The facility was inaugurated in December 2010 and stocked with uranium. This fuel bank is internationally managed and open to IAEA member states that experience "noncommercial disruption of supply." It is the first global repository of LEU in history.

In a similar vein, in 2006 the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), with backing from the investor Warren Buffett, pledged $50 million to the IAEA toward establishing an international fuel bank, on the condition that nations pledge a combined $100 million. Money came in from the European Union, the United States, Kuwait, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates, and the IAEA approved NTI's idea in December 2010. Under the current version of the plan, the repository would be located in Kazakhstan, but with the IAEA retaining complete control of the site as well as ownership of the nuclear material stored there. It is hoped that the facility might open in late 2013. Perhaps the IAEA's high level of control over the Russian and Kazakh facilities will address developing countries' traditional fears that they will be discriminated against.

An additional feature of both these proposed facilities -- one that is unpopular with some potential customers -- is a limitation on how much fuel could be purchased from the repositories. The facility in Russia stores 120 metric tons of LEU, sufficient for fueling a typical 1000-megawatt light water reactor for more than four years. The proposed Kazakh facility is envisioned as storing 60 metric tons. These modest capacities are consistent with the IAEA's view that a fuel bank is meant only for emergencies; a fuel bank should be used only when market arrangements have failed. But this entirely reasonable condition, meant to protect the interests of existing private-sector LEU producers, disappoints some nations that might have hoped to obtain cheap nuclear fuel from a fuel bank.

But there is a fear that a fuel bank could be a means of pressuring non-nuclear weapon countries in the developing world into purchasing all their fuel on the open market or through a fuel bank, in effect foregoing their rights under the NPT and IAEA statutes to build enrichment plants. Many developing countries are not eager to renounce their right to enrich. Brazil began enriching uranium for civilian purposes in 2009, and nations like Argentina and South Africa have discussed doing likewise. This desire to enrich stems partly from concerns over energy security, but also in some cases from commercial considerations. Considerable reserves of uranium lie within some non-weapon states, and a few of these states have sufficient technological skill to construct enrichment facilities. These countries could increase the value of their uranium by enriching it for sale as fuel. If fuel-bank schemes were to discourage nations from building enrichment plants, they could interfere with what these countries regard as a legitimate commercial opportunity.

Notwithstanding these concerns, fuel banks could still prove beneficial for developing nations that are interested in nuclear power but are uninterested in nuclear weapons. With a credible international authority like the IAEA guaranteeing the availability of LEU, such countries could build power reactors without having to build expensive enrichment facilities. These facilities in any case can require a stable of a dozen reactors to absorb the fuel they produce, but most of a fuel bank's likely customer nations need a reactor or two at most. Their power requirements do not exceed what one or two reactors can provide, and their electricity grids are not capable of accommodating more.

Significant amounts of effort and funding have gone toward establishing fuel banks. It is my hope that enough nations will take advantage of them to justify the investment.

Editor's note: This article was updated on September 14, 2012, to correct an editorial mistake on the details of the structure of international fuel banks.

Round 2

10/09/2012 - 04:56

National decisions, national interest

In my first Roundtable essay, I analyzed a number of problems that might face developing nations that gain access to low-enriched uranium through an international fuel bank. However, my understanding of two fuel-bank initiatives in which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is involved was incorrect in this important respect: I had believed that fuel banks would require customer nations to renounce their right to enrich uranium -- whereas, according to the agency, no such stipulation exists. In fact, the IAEA identifies as a "basic principle" of assurance of supply mechanisms that "the rights of Member States, including establishing or expanding their own production capacity in the nuclear fuel cycle, shall remain intact and shall not in any way be compromised or diminished by the establishment of international assurance of supply mechanisms."

This language seems clear enough. Yet in the developing world's nonproliferation circles, the belief remains widespread that nations will be forced to forego enrichment to gain access to a fuel bank. I have attended a number of seminars and workshops where fuel-bank proposals were discussed. Most people I have talked to at these events sincerely believed that recipients would be required to renounce their right to enrich. So the question presents itself: Why does such a gulf separate the IAEA's stated policies on this subject from prevailing beliefs in the developing world?

The explanation, in part, may be that anxiety regarding the intentions of developed countries is rather common in the developing world. Specifically, I suspect that potential customer nations have so often experienced pressure from supplier nations about enrichment and reprocessing issues that they do not trust suppliers' pledges about multilateral arrangements. To give an example of the sort of thing that sparks suspicion, the United States in 2009 reached a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in which the UAE foreswore its right to enrich uranium. Since then, many in Washington have argued that new nuclear cooperation agreements must follow the so-called "gold standard" established by the UAE model. The Obama administration has elected not to adopt such a policy, but from the perspective of developing countries, can the United States be trusted not to abuse its power someday regarding access to a fuel bank?

Indeed, I harbor some doubts myself about how fuel banks will work in practice. Experience has taught us that declared policies and published texts can change to suit the interests of policy makers. For instance, last year the Nuclear Suppliers Group revised its guidelines on technology related to enrichment and reprocessing, placing additional burdens on recipients. So if supplier nations can change their policies at will, who can assure developing countries that the suppliers -- which tend to be among the most powerful countries in the international system -- will not someday act in a similar fashion when it comes to fuel banks? Put another way, even if we trust the IAEA's intention to administer fuel banks in line with current policy, can the agency necessarily maintain its independence in the future?

For developing countries that embark on nuclear power programs, relying on a fuel bank for emergency supplies of low-enriched uranium represents a potential trade-off, just as many other issues in international relations represent trade-offs. When such countries decide whether to construct their own enrichment facilities, or instead to purchase low-enriched uranium on the open market and depend on the IAEA fuel banks as a backstop, they will do so on the basis of national interest. This observation may sound rather obvious, but it is accurate.

The IAEA should be applauded for its involvement in two fuel-bank projects that, at least in theory, will provide developing nations with an alternative that gives them fuel security in case of emergency -- while not requiring them to renounce their rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Fuel banks will now have a chance to show how they work in practice -- and in time, if they function as they are supposed to, the suspicions of potential customer nations may be allayed.

10/11/2012 - 03:42

Despite assurances, doubts persist

In my first Roundtable essay I acknowledged some advantages that might accrue to a country that relies on an international fuel bank for emergency supplies of low-enriched uranium (LEU), but primarily I explored the disadvantages of such an arrangement. Several of the disadvantages that I identified stemmed from my understanding that states accessing a fuel bank would be required to forgo rights guaranteed to them under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- such as the right to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel.

It turns out that my understanding was not in harmony with the actual structure of two fuel-bank initiatives associated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Indeed, the agency states categorically that nations' rights regarding the nuclear fuel cycle shall not be compromised by assurance of supply mechanisms. Also worth noting is that gaining access to low-enriched uranium through a fuel bank would not require joining the bank; the fuel would be made available to any IAEA member state that met some basic criteria.

Although when I wrote my first essay I was unaware of some of the evolving details surrounding these two fuel-bank initiatives, I remain unconvinced that, in practice, fuel banks will work the way they are designed to work. To be clear, my respect for and appreciation of the IAEA are strong, and my skepticism about the fuel banks does not mean that I question the agency's intention to manage the facilities properly. Rather, my distrust springs from two issues: the motivations that may have led to the banks' establishment, and the influence that several nuclear weapon states might exert over the facilities due to their financial contributions to them.

Was the motivation for establishing the fuel banks solely to help emerging nuclear states develop their energy sectors? Or instead, as seems plausible, was it mostly to address proliferation threats by reducing the chances that non-nuclear weapon states would establish comprehensive nuclear energy programs? In fact, if nonproliferation was not the primary aim, why have the United States and other nations gone to the trouble and expense of negotiating, funding, and setting up fuel banks? A further question is whether there could have been a desire on the part of countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to limit the number of nations capable of providing nuclear fuel services, thus creating an oligopoly in the market for low-enriched uranium.

These questions naturally introduce doubts about the way fuel banks will work. For instance, the United States in its negotiations toward nuclear cooperation agreements has often attempted to restrict other nations' ability to use the equipment and materials acquired under the agreements for enrichment and reprocessing activities. So how can developing countries be sure that, if they ever experience a need for emergency supplies of low-enriched uranium, they will not come under political pressure from the United States to renounce their fuel-cycle rights? If a fuel bank's supplies of LEU run low, can supplier states necessarily be trusted to replenish them? And if a facility's reserves are depleted due to higher-than-expected demand, can a country without an enrichment capacity be sure that states with such a capacity will supply fuel to it?

Serious questions surround the motivations that have led to the establishment of fuel banks, and this leads inevitably to doubts about the fuel banks' operation. Until these questions and doubts are satisfactorily addressed, I will find it difficult to embrace the concept of international nuclear fuel banks. Regional fuel banks, on the other hand, might be able to provide assurances that would address the aforementioned doubts and concerns, and thus might find wider acceptance among emerging nuclear states.

10/18/2012 - 05:31

Assurances, but no sense of assurance

The participants in this Roundtable have identified a number of concerns about the way that fuel banks for low-enriched uranium (LEU) will work in practice. Prominent in my colleagues' first-round essays was the belief that developing countries that depend on fuel banks for emergency supplies of low-enriched uranium would be forced to forgo their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to establish indigenous enrichment and reprocessing facilities. In their second-round essays, my colleagues acknowledged that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides explicit assurances that fuel-bank initiatives are not to diminish nations' rights in the nuclear fuel cycle.

But also worth noting, I believe, is an agency assurance regarding the IAEA LEU bank -- the multilateral facility for low-enriched uranium that seems likely to be located in Kazakhstan -- that the availability of fuel will not be influenced by the geopolitical relationship between customer states and the state on whose soil the fuel bank is located. "The host state," says the agency, "shall grant the agency the right to transport LEU to and from the IAEA LEU bank as determined by the agency." This should reduce concerns that political tensions between a customer state and other parties might interfere with the customer's ability to purchase low-enriched uranium.

One would think that assurances as explicit as these would put to rest most fears of potential customer nations. Indeed, I would welcome suggestions as to what more the IAEA might do to strengthen its assurances. But such is the level of mistrust prevailing between the developed and developing worlds that even signed and sealed documents are not considered sacrosanct. This is to some extent understandable. As Ta Minh Tuan has pointed out, the Nuclear Suppliers Group recently revised its guidelines on technology related to enrichment and reprocessing. And in a somewhat similar vein, the United States in 2002 withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Meanwhile, Khaled Toukan has posed a very logical question that deserves an honest answer: Why have the United States and other developed nations gone to the trouble and expense of helping to establish fuel banks if not to stop the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology? The charitable explanation -- that fuel banks have been established to help nations develop their nuclear energy sectors -- might have seemed valid in the days of "Atoms for Peace." But the world today has no space for nuclear altruism. Nor does a country such as the United States have as strong a commercial motivation to promote nuclear energy as it did when it was the world's dominant builder of reactors. Today, the United States competes with a number of other nations in exporting reactors.

Therefore, it seems best to admit that nuclear nonproliferation is the primary motivation for promoting fuel banks. But does that necessarily make fuel-bank schemes dubious or ineffective? True, nonproliferation has taken on a bad odor among many developing nations because they feel that the recognized nuclear weapon states have concentrated more effort on preventing nations from acquiring weapons than on fulfilling their own obligations under the NPT to disarm. Still, in an age of potential nuclear terrorism, does any nation favor proliferation (except perhaps proliferation that it carries out itself)?

The principle behind nonproliferation may be asymmetric and unfair, but this unfairness should not be used as an ideological instrument that allows fuel banks to be opposed in toto. A number of developing nations are starved for energy; lack the financial or technological wherewithal to build a full fuel-cycle infrastructure; and also have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. Why should these nations not benefit from fuel banks? Meanwhile, the countries that place little trust in the IAEA's assurances can wait to see how the fuel-bank schemes work out.

Round 3

10/25/2012 - 04:47

Agreement, disagreement, and a path forward

To this point, authors in this Roundtable have expressed markedly different levels of enthusiasm for international fuel banks. Ramamurti Rajaraman has generally supported the idea of fuel banks. Khaled Toukan and I, while not dismissing the facilities, have focused considerable attention on our reservations about them. On four major issues, however, the Roundtable authors have largely agreed.

First, none of the authors questions that fuel banks, working as they are designed to work, would be useful for some developing countries. Nations that choose to develop nuclear power sectors without developing an enrichment capacity could only benefit from reliable access to emergency supplies of low-enriched uranium, as long as they face no pressure to renounce their rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Second, none of the authors disputes the idea that the two fuel-bank initiatives associated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deserve a chance to demonstrate how they will work in practice. Then again, the authors' third point of agreement is that significant doubts surround fuel-bank initiatives in the developing world, no matter how potentially useful the initiatives might seem. Therefore, in my view, many in the developing world will not place their full confidence in fuel banks without proof that they will operate as designed. The developing world's doubts, of course, are related to the fourth issue on which the authors agree -- that the proliferation concerns of some nuclear weapon states and nuclear supplier states have provided the main motivation for establishing fuel banks.

Rajaraman, discussing this final point in his second essay, argues that the "principle behind nonproliferation may be asymmetric and unfair, but this unfairness should not be used as an ideological instrument that allows fuel banks to be opposed in toto." I do not disagree, but at the same time I find it difficult to embrace fuel banks completely. I acknowledge that some nations with nuclear power programs might benefit from fuel banks. But I question whether emerging nuclear nations can avoid suspicions that they intend to proliferate -- even if they maintain good records on nonproliferation and elect to rely on a fuel bank for emergency supplies of nuclear fuel. Gaining developed-world trust, I fear, could ultimately depend on renouncing enrichment. Indeed, many in the developing world look at the "gold standard" established in the nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and the United Arab Emirates and suspect that the United States would like to enforce fuel-cycle restrictions on a broad range of developing countries.

The IAEA, as Rajaraman points out, offers quite explicit assurances that the establishment of fuel banks is not to diminish nations' rights regarding the fuel cycle. Rajaraman is correct that these assurances could hardly be stronger. But it is not the agency's intentions, seriousness, or management capacity that I question. Rather, I question whether the agency can maintain its independence if powerful nations exert pressure on it. Toukan questions this as well, and the series of valid questions that he presents in his second essay encapsulates many of the developing world's anxieties and suspicions.

A final point regarding Rajaraman's second essay: He notes an agency assurance that "the availability of fuel will not be influenced by the geopolitical relationship between customer states and the state on whose soil the fuel bank is located." I would remark that a customer nation, in order to be refused a supply, need not experience political problems with a fuel bank's host country; difficulties arising between the customer nation and a third party could result in a supply disruption as well.

I genuinely believe that international fuel bank initiatives can succeed -- as long as all parties approach the project in a spirit of fairness and transparency, with no political bargaining going on behind the scenes. Absent this spirit of fairness, the initiatives will fail. After all, the fuel stored at these facilities will prove useless unless potential customer nations can feel confident that emergency supplies of fuel will in fact be provided if the need for them ever arises.

11/01/2012 - 04:53

Proceed, but with caution

In my second Roundtable essay I discussed my concerns that fuel banks might be used to pressure developing countries into forgoing rights guaranteed them under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has given assurances that the establishment of fuel banks will not diminish nations' rights. My colleague Ta Minh Tuan to a large extent shares these concerns, while Ramamurti Rajaraman does not. One thing on which we all agree is that fuel banks do deserve a chance to demonstrate how they will work in practice; their potential value in providing emergency supplies of reactor-grade fuel to emerging nuclear states should not be discounted. And I do believe, despite my reservations, that emerging nuclear states should encourage the concept of nuclear fuel banks.

I would also like to reemphasize my appreciation of and respect for the sincere, proactive role that the IAEA has played and continues to play for emerging nuclear states. Jordan, my own country, has benefited greatly from the programs and initiatives sponsored by the agency, especially those related to infrastructure development, regulatory compliance, and administrative and technical training. The agency's ability to assemble and deploy teams of world-renowned experts to participate in technical cooperation forums is very useful and impressive. I have great respect for what the agency does and what it embodies. Again, my reservations about the implementation of fuel banks are not related to the agency's intentions or capabilities.

But I remain concerned that, when a developing country someday develops a real need for emergency supplies of reactor-grade fuel, a number of nuclear weapon states might use the opportunity to pressure the developing country into forgoing some of its rights under the NPT. For this reason, I would argue that developing countries should not rely too heavily on international fuel banks for emergency supplies of reactor-grade fuel -- especially because nuclear weapon states have been so crucial to fuel banks' funding and fuel supplies, and because some of those states retain undeclared policies that, in my opinion, are geared toward preventing developing countries from achieving complete, self-sustaining nuclear fuel programs.

In order to limit their dependence on fuel banks, emerging nuclear nations should consider diversifying their fuel suppliers, increasing their stocks of fuel and, when feasible, expediting plans to develop indigenous enrichment capabilities. I realize that it may not be practical or economically justifiable for countries with a limited number of nuclear power reactors to develop their own enrichment facilities. However, non-nuclear weapon states could forge alliances in order to develop a collaborative mechanism for low-enriched fuel supply. This would enhance energy security by ensuring reliable sources of low-enriched fuel and eliminating potential threats to nations' sovereign rights.

Meanwhile, to reduce concerns in a number of emerging nuclear states, it is imperative that the nuclear weapon states that have been heavily involved in the fuel banks' establishment do everything they can to ensure that fuel banks work as designed. As Ta has argued, fuel banks must be approached in a spirit of fairness and transparency, and behind-the-scenes political bargaining must be avoided.

Time will tell if fuel banks function as advertised. But if they do not -- if developing nations that seek low-enriched uranium experience pressure to forego any of their rights -- emerging nuclear nations might forge alliances among themselves in order to safeguard their sovereignty and inalienable rights.

11/08/2012 - 06:17

Convergence and nuance

The aim of organizing a Roundtable discussion such as this is primarily to elicit a spectrum of views and arguments on a particular topic. Whether the discussion has an "outcome" -- whether it converges into a consensus -- is not so important. But in this case, I believe that a convergence has mostly taken place.

As Ta Minh Tuan pointed out in his third essay, all three Roundtable participants acknowledge that, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued assurances that no strings will be attached to gaining fuel supplies from an international fuel bank, many developing countries continue to doubt that they could purchase low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the facilities without their rights' being infringed on. The key point here is not whether nations' fears are justified, or even whether hindrances will actually materialize. Rather, it is the lingering perception that hindrances might materialize. Meanwhile, all Roundtable participants share the hope that at least a few developing nations will benefit from international fuel banks; by and large, I feel that we agree on the essentials in this conversation.

The differences that remain among us are only nuances, and even they can be reconciled. Let me address one of them here. Ta, responding in his third essay to a point I had made earlier, asked whether "emerging nuclear nations can avoid suspicions that they intend to proliferate -- even if they maintain good records on nonproliferation." Ta's concern has merit, and I would like to examine it more closely through a hypothetical (and perhaps controversial) example.

Iran has been accused of failing to disclose to the IAEA significant details about its nuclear program. But suppose that Iran had been highly transparent about its nuclear plans from the outset. Suppose it had announced that it would build a bank of centrifuges for enriching uranium, but that it would not produce highly-enriched uranium. Suppose Tehran had in fact kept its enrichment within the bounds of LEU, foresworn any intention of building a weapon, and submitted to all aspects of IAEA supervision.

Would the West have stood aside in that case -- especially as Iran's technical capabilities and its stocks of LEU grew to the point that Tehran was technologically poised to produce weapons if it chose to do so? Many Iranians, and many people in the developing world who sympathize with Iran, would probably expect the West to have opposed Tehran's nuclear activities in that situation.

I do not wish to take sides on what Iran's true intentions are. I only advance this scenario as a plausible example of Ta's point that a nation viewed with distrust by major powers may not be able to enjoy its full rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Following the rules may not be enough. It may also be necessary to remain "in good standing" with the major developed nations.

Finally, there is one aspect of the arrangements for fuel banks that is not very clear to me. The IAEA says that supplies from a fuel bank could be made available to a country that "is experiencing a supply disruption of LEU to a nuclear power plant and is unable to secure LEU from the commercial market, or through state-to-state arrangements, or by any other such means." But does that imply that a fuel bank is meant to be used only very rarely, perhaps just once? Or can a country access LEU from a fuel bank for as long as the market does not provide it fuel? Assuming that a country experiencing problems with the open market does not have an enrichment facility of its own, where is it to obtain regular fuel supplies, if not from a fuel bank? If regular supplies are not available from a fuel bank, wouldn't a customer nation's nuclear energy security ultimately be at the mercy of bilateral relations with supplier nations?

If a fuel bank only guarantees a first load of fuel for one reactor, I can well understand a country's anxiety about not constructing its own enrichment facilities!