A dream of enhanced global nuclear security a decade in the making became reality in Astana last month when the government of Kazakhstan and the International Atomic Energy Agency signed an agreement that will help guarantee a secured supply of uranium for nuclear power.
The IAEA’s Low Enriched Uranium fuel bank – expected to be operational in 2017 – will be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen in northeastern Kazakhstan. The LEU bank is one of only a few in the world and the first to be managed by the IAEA. The project is part of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s vision for a nuclear weapons-free world, and will help deter nations who want nuclear power from further developing nuclear weapons.
So-called LEU – low enriched uranium – can be enriched to around 20 percent of the uranium-235 isotope. It takes 80 to 90 percent enrichment of the isotope to make a nuclear bomb.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, speaking at the August 27 ceremony at the ornate Kazakh foreign ministry in Astana, said the Central Asian nation – home of the largest supply of uranium on earth – was a natural choice to host the LEU bank because of its longstanding commitment to nuclear safety and security.
“As the world’s largest uranium producer, with expertise in peaceful nuclear technology, Kazakhstan is well suited to hosting the IAEA LEU Bank,” Amano said after he and Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov signed the agreement in Astana. “I am confident that the IAEA LEU Bank will operate safely and securely, in line with the applicable IAEA nuclear safety standards and nuclear security guidance.”
“A lot of work must still be done, but after the signing of the relevant documents today, the legal framework is fully in place and we can move ahead with full-scale implementation,” Amano said.
The IAEA LEU Bank is part of global efforts to create an assured supply of nuclear fuel to countries in case of disruptions to the open market or other existing supply arrangements for LEU. Other assurance of supply mechanisms established with IAEA approval include a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by the Russian Federation at the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk, and a UK assurance of supply guarantee for supplies of LEU enrichment services. The United States also operates its own LEU reserve.
Moments after the ceremony, the White House issued a statement praising Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan’s commitment to the LEU fuel bank project.
“President Obama appreciates President Nazarbayev’s important leadership on nonproliferation spanning more than two decades,” the statement said. “The government of Kazakhstan, by volunteering to host the LEU bank, which was first conceived and funded by the NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative), has further cemented its reputation as a world leader in promoting nonproliferation and nuclear security.”
The IAEA said its LEU bank in Kazakhstan will be able to hold up to 90 tons of LEU, enough to run a 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor for three years, powering a city of one million for three years. The LEU bank will be funded by the United States and European Union, as well as with a one-time $50 million investment by American billionaire Warren Buffet, among other parties.
“I am grateful to all of the donors, including the Government of Kazakhstan,” Amano said. “Their contributions will make it possible to establish the IAEA LEU Bank and will cover its costs for the first ten years of operation.”
One of the key drivers of the LEU bank was Sam Nunn, a former chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee who is currently the co-chairman of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. In an interview after the signing ceremony in Kazakhstan, Nunn said the fuel bank is meant to enhance – not replace – individual nations’ nuclear fuel development.
“The fuel bank doesn’t preclude IAEA member states from developing their own nuclear fuel facilities,” Nunn explained. “It enables and encourages countries that want civil, peaceful nuclear power to go forward with their plans without putting in their own indigenous enrichment and not fearing a collapse of the marketplace or a political cutoff.”
“It’s a supply of last resort,” he added.
Nunn has long praised Kazakhstan’s commitment to nuclear security. He traveled to the Central Asian nation 10 years ago to celebrate the conclusion of another project, jointly implemented by NTI, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Kazakh government to blend down around three tonnes of highly enriched uranium.
Kazakhstan, a former Soviet state, voluntarily relinquished its arsenal of some 1,400 nuclear warheads soon after gaining independence in 1991 and returned them to Russia after the Soviet Union broke apart. In the intervening years, Kazakhstan – eager to boost its international credibility and experienced in the nuclear realm having handled and stored nuclear material safely and securely for more than 60 years – has become a global leader in nuclear security.
Under Nunn’s leadership, NTI spent a decade helping to broker the fuel bank agreement reasoning that providing a safe, secure stockpile of low enriched uranium would help deter those nations who want to tap into nuclear power from developing the more highly enriched weapons-grade variety of uranium. Nunn even convinced his friend Warren Buffett, a billionaire American investor and NTI board member, to kick in $50 million to make it happen.
In remarks at the Kazakh embassy in Washington in mid-September, Nunn thanked Kazakhstan for its leadership in the nuclear arena.
“I’m grateful to the government of Kazakhstan for hosting the fuel bank and for your nation’s outstanding leadership in the whole field of reducing nuclear risk,” Nunn said. “You have indeed been a leader. President Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan have set an example for the world.”
“I was truly honored to be in Astana to personally witness this milestone in global cooperation to reduce nuclear risk, and that is what we are doing – reducing the nuclear risk,” the internationally-acclaimed atomic expert said. “The IAEA fuel bank, simply put, will enable and encourage peaceful uses of nuclear energy while reducing the risk of proliferation and reducing the risk of catastrophic terrorism.”
“I believe that locating the nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan is a cornerstone to developing a new and improved approach to reducing the risk associated with nuclear power,” Nunn added.
At the same embassy event, Madelyn Creedon, principal deputy administrator for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, heaped praised on the Kazakh government, calling the LEU bank “a key part of President Nazarbayev’s nuclear agenda.”
“The LEU fuel bank could not have been a reality without Kazakhstan’s generous offer to host it,” Creedon said.
The U.S., Kazakhstan and Russia share a long history of cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation issues. Additional cooperation between the U.S. and Kazakhstan includes improving security for nuclear and radiological materials, constructing a Nuclear Security Training Center that will serve Kazakhstan’s entire nuclear industry, developing nuclear security curriculum, providing radiation detection equipment at Kazakhstan ports of entry as well as associated training and support for sustainment of equipment, and cooperating on safeguards implementation and training for Kazakhstani officials on export controls.
Kairat Umarov, Kazakstan’s ambassador to the United States, told guests at the embassy event that the signing of the agreement marked “a critical milestone in global non-proliferation.”
“We firmly believe it is a good agreement that will facilitate peaceful nuclear cooperation that will facilitate Kazakhstan’s objectives,” Umarov said. ”The selection of Kazakhstan as the site of the first ever IAEA LEU bank is a vote of confidence and recognition that my country is a leader in non-proliferation and a testament to the fact that we are a reliable and responsible international partner with longstanding experience in handling nuclear materials.”