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.