Kazakhstan, once one of the largest repositories of nuclear weapons, is now qualified to become a “fuel bank” for low-enriched uranium for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The government of the former Soviet Republic announced on its website on May 13 that Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik had signed the draft agreement two weeks earlier, and the transaction became effective immediately. Astana has been lobbying the U.N. to become a fuel bank for low-enriched uranium (LEU) for the past five years.
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At the time of the signing, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, “We believe that the development of multilateral approaches to nuclear fuel, including the creation of guaranteed nuclear fuel reserves, will contribute to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”
Under IAEA criteria, an LEU fuel bank can be situated only in a country with no nuclear weapons and is fully open to the U.N. agency’s inspectors. Kazakhstan, which once held the world’s fourth-largest nuclear weapons arsenal on behalf of Moscow, gave them up in 1992 after the Soviet Union broke up.
The fuel bank will provide a reserve of LEU for producing fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants. Any IAEA member state planning to build such a generator would then apply to Kazakhstan to obtain the necessary uranium fuel.
The signing of the draft agreement between Kazakhstan and the IAEA came nearly two years later than originally planned. The agreement originally was expected in late 2013, but has been delayed as Astana and the U.N.’s nuclear energy overseer first had to work through several knotty technicalities.
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Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who now serves as co-chairman of the non-governmental Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, first proposed the idea of an LEU bank, and the IAEA said Kazakhstan was the most likely country to host it. It is the world’s largest producer of uranium with a 38 percent share, and already has a legal framework for handling nuclear materials.
The probable location of the bank will be the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk in eastern Kazakhstan, although some concerns have arisen because of possible seismic disruptions in the region and some opposition from local residents.
Nevertheless, the Kazakh government says it already meets the IAEA’s criteria for security, long-term storage and safe nuclear processing.
The Ulba Metallurgical Plant is part of Kazakhstan’s state-owned National Atomic Co., or Kazatomprom. During talks between Astana and the IAEA in 2012, the company’s director, Vladimir Shkolnik, had argued that Ulba has proven it is best-suited for the bank because it had a proven track record: no nuclear leaks or accidents in more than 40 years of operation.
Shkolnik also said adding the necessary 60 tons to 70 tons of LEU to the material already being held at Ulba would not be a strain on the facility because that would mean an increase in storage capacity by a mere 5 percent. “Kazakhstan’s experience in handling such materials has been a key point in promoting the country’s candidacy to host the bank,” he said.
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During the negotiations, Astana also contended that it already had strong background in handling nuclear materials, as well as a many well-trained personnel in the field.
A nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan wouldn’t be the first located in the former Soviet Union. The IAEA approved a Russian proposal in November 2009 to set up a similar facility under IAEA control at the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk in Siberia, about 150 miles north of the Mongolian border. The fuel at the facility is available to IAEA members at market rates.
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com