Will LEU banks have ATMs?

The IAEA’s Director, Mohamed ElBaradei, published an op-ed in the Guardian yesterday, outlining five global problems that he sees undermining the goal of nuclear non-proliferation. He also suggests an innovative step that needs to be taken, one that reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis’ idea to “multinationalize the fuel cycle.”

Last month, I proposed a key measure to strengthen non-proliferation to the IAEA’s board of governors – establishing an IAEA bank of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to guarantee supplies to countries that need nuclear fuel for their power reactors. LEU cannot be used to make weapons. Some such mechanism will be essential in the coming decades as more and more countries introduce nuclear energy.

My proposal is to create a physical stockpile of LEU at the disposal of the IAEA as a last-resort reserve for countries with nuclear power programmes that face a supply disruption for non-commercial reasons. This would give countries confidence that they can count on reliable supplies of fuel to run their nuclear power plants, and therefore do not need to develop their own uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing capability.

I’m enthusiastic about the idea, which would seem to navigate the balance between the legitimate pursuit of nuclear fuel and the unacceptable one of nuclear weapons. But my skepticism comes into play when thinking about whether countries would be willing to come to an international fuel bank for their nuclear energy (one presumably run, or at least provided for, by Western or current nuclear powers), rather than develop it themselves.  It certainly undercuts the rationale of a country that spurns such an international offer, but would the ensuing isolation be enough to dissuade its own nuclear-nationalistic ambitions?

ElBaradei does stress that “[n]o state would be required to give up the right to develop its own fuel cycle,” but in that case, I’m struggling to see how this fuel bank would replace the model whereby each country undertakes its own nuclear fuel process, and thereby acquires the potential to develop nuclear weapons. And the problem is that this model is not only dominant today, but it’s fraught with nationalistic overtones. Once an issue is made an object of national pride or greatness, as it has in the Iranian case, it’s difficult to undo its symbolic importance. So while I’m a proponent of a multinational organization to monitor and even control countries’ fuel cycles, I’m not optimistic that this will fully deflate the incentives for beginning one’s own nuclear program.

Here’s the ArmsControlWonk himself: