"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Fissile Material

U.S. Floats New Fissile Talks Formula

Inclusion of fissile stockpiles fails to break a deadlock at the Conference on Disarmament. 

March 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

19_NEWS_Fismat.jpgIn an effort in January to break the years-long dispute blocking the start of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), Nigeria, the CD president at the time, circulated an informal draft proposal for talks on fissile material issues formulated by the United States and backed by several other governments.

To date, the proposal has not obtained the necessary consensus support in the 65-country CD, which is based in Geneva.

The new proposal calls for the establishment of a working group to “negotiate an internationally and effectively verifiable treaty dealing with fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,” according to diplomatic sources.

This formula would allow for talks on a treaty that would not only verifiably halt the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also take into account existing stockpiles of fissile materials for use in nuclear arms.

In recent years, Pakistan has opposed negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material unless the talks also address the issue of existing fissile material stockpiles.

On Jan. 26, just days before the new proposal was put forward, Pakistan’s CD ambassador, Tehmina Janjua, complained that other states have not been “willing to include existing stocks of fissile material in the treaty’s negotiating mandate.”

“A treaty that does not address the asymmetry in fissile material stocks…would adversely affect Pakistan’s vital interests,” Janjua said.

Pakistan, its neighbor India, and North Korea are currently producing and stockpiling fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons.

France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have publicly renounced fissile material production for weapons, while China is believed to have stopped such production. All have significant residual stockpiles. Israel is not believed to be actively producing fissile material for weapons.

Several delegation heads welcomed the proposal. Patricia O’Brien of Ireland praised “the timely U.S. initiative” and its inclusion of existing stockpiles of fissile material in the negotiating mandate.

“There is not more time to lose,” O’Brien said in a Feb. 2 statement to the CD.

Since 1996, the member states of the CD have failed to agree on a common work plan for negotiations on four main issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cutoff treaty, the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and negative security assurances. (See ACT, September 2015.)

After consultations among states on the new proposal, Pakistan, along with China and Russia, blocked agreement, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the situation. Pakistan, according to one informed source, argued that the negotiating mandate must explicitly state that existing stocks would be considered rather than simply allowing for consideration of the issue.

In response, Nigeria circulated a formal proposal for “discussions” on all four of the core agenda items. 

This approach, however, elicited strong criticism from states that are impatient with the CD’s inability to launch negotiations, rather than discussions, on one or more agenda items.

“Mere discussions can never be a substitute for ‘substantive work’ according to the CD mandate—that is, negotiating treaties to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons,” argued Thomas Zehetner of Austria in a statement to the CD on Feb. 19.

“We have seen efforts in recent weeks to start negotiations. We believe that we should continue with these efforts to strive for the adoption of a Program of Work that would result in the start of negotiations, not just an exchange of views,” Zehetner said.

Efforts to resolve the impasse now fall to Norway, which takes over the CD presidency in March. 

Global Partners to Pick Up Summit Work

Officials are crafting an action plan ahead of the nuclear security summit. 

March 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

20_NEWS_GP.jpgA global initiative set up to prevent the spread of nonconventional weapons is poised to take on some of the work from the nuclear security summits, which will end this year, a senior U.S. official said in December.

Bonnie Jenkins, the State Department’s coordinator for threat reduction programs, said in a Dec. 21 interview that at a December meeting in Kazakhstan, representatives from countries participating in the summit process were on their way to agreeing on an action plan to be submitted to leaders for approval at the March 31-April 1 nuclear security summit in Washington. The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction will continue some of the summit work on securing nuclear and radiological materials worldwide.

 The Global Partnership, set up in 2002 by the Group of Eight (G-8) industrial countries, currently is comprised of 29 countries. Jenkins is the U.S. representative to the partnership.

 Originally, the partnership was a 10-year initiative focused on destroying stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the former Soviet Union. In 2011, member countries decided to extend the initiative beyond 2012 and work on projects beyond the former Soviet Union. (See ACT, January/February 2013.)

Continuing the work of the nuclear security summits, which are an initiative of President Barack Obama to secure weapons-usable material worldwide that began in 2010 and will end with the March 31-April 1 meeting, is part of the expanded mandate that members of the partnership approved in 2011.

Ensuring continuity of the nuclear security summits’ work is a primary task for the states participating in that process as they prepare for this year’s summit.

Participants plan to divide the work of the summits among five organizations—the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Interpol, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership (see "Nuclear Summit Seeks Sustainable Results").

An official familiar with a December draft of the Global Partnership’s action plan for continuing summit work said in a Feb. 1 email that the plan focuses on a number of areas designed to enhance national nuclear security regimes, including assisting and coordinating activities that reduce insider threats, providing assistance for enhancing security of radioactive sources, and coordinating programs and exercises on activities to counter nuclear smuggling.

The official also said that the final version of the action plan could include language on support for consolidation and disposal of nuclear nuclear materials and assistance in upgrading capabilities in nuclear forensics.

Long-Planned Transition

Unlike the summits, which had a global focus, the partnership initially concentrated primarily on projects in the former Soviet Union. With the decision to expand the scope of the work and the geographic focus in 2011, Canada proposed a dedicated working group on nuclear and radiological security to ensure that the progress from the nuclear security summits would be carried out on the ground in a “comprehensive manner and would continue after the summits end,” a Canadian official said in a Dec. 15 interview.

The partnership subsequently established that working group, along with groups on biological security, chemical security, and other issues.

The official said Ottawa proposed the nuclear and radiological group because Canada saw a need for a “more coordinated and strategic approach” to enhancing nuclear material security after the decision to extend the partnership in 2011.

Jenkins said that continuing the work of the summits should be the primary focus of this working group. 

Canada proposed that the working group initially concentrate on areas such as physical protection of nuclear and radiological materials, strengthening of information security, prevention of illicit nuclear trafficking, and enhancement of nuclear security culture, the Canadian official said, noting that all of these areas are summit priorities.

When the working group first met in 2013, the United Kingdom, which was chairing the group, decided to emphasize three principles, a UK official told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 17 email. He said the working group decided to operate on a “matchmaking” principle, meaning it would “connect expertise and funding with needs.” Complementing the work of existing organizations and projects and focusing on the target areas listed by Canada in the proposal, particularly enhancing nuclear security culture, also were priorities, he said.

Since the initial meeting in 2013, the nuclear and radiological working group has carried out a number of projects using the matchmaking principle. These projects were detailed in the most recent comprehensive listing of the partnership’s activities.

Sweden funded more than a dozen projects in Ukraine and Russia in 2013. These projects included enhancing physical protection at a Russian shipyard, training Ukrainian border guards, and assisting in establishing a national Ukrainian database for radioactive sources.  

Canada funded a regional workshop for Central American countries in August 2013 that focused on the security of radioactive sources. Japan provided support for several workshops on nonproliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in several countries including Jordan, Turkey, and Vietnam.

The United States, working with the IAEA, is funding an ongoing project to assist countries in the Middle East and North Africa in developing nuclear and radiological regulatory regimes. Another U.S.-funded project is working on radiation safety and a U.S.-Russian monitoring regime for shut-down plutonium production reactors in Russia.

Japan currently chairs the nuclear and radiological working group and will set the priorities for the group in 2016. Japan also took over as chair of the entire Global Partnership from Germany in January.

Jenkins said the partnership “has a full plate” and should therefore focus on strengthening and sustaining its current agenda, including the action plan from the upcoming nuclear security summit, rather than adding new priorities.


Centers of Excellence

The United States and Italy chair a working group focused on “centers of excellence” that is also involved with the nuclear security agenda. The centers serve as institutions for training individuals on a wide range of WMD-related security concerns.

In the Dec. 21 interview, Jenkins said this working group concentrates on promoting security culture, sustaining the centers of excellence after the upcoming nuclear security summit, coordinating with the IAEA’s network for nuclear security centers, and finding ways to increase cooperation among centers. Most centers focus on nuclear security, Jenkins said, but several have chemical or biological mandates, making the working group on centers of excellence the only one that spans the WMD spectrum.

For that reason, the working group also works on implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1540. Passed in 2004, the resolution requires states to take steps to prevent the spread of WMD materials, technologies, and delivery vehicles, particularly to nonstate actors.

Jenkins said that implementing Resolution 1540 was part of the expanded mandate of the partnership but, until now, little work had been done in this area.

She said that in January the working group would meet in Tokyo to consider how it can support projects designed to implement obligations under the resolution and support the planned review conference on Resolution 1540, which is to take place in the winter of 2017.

Biological and Chemical Weapons Work

Jenkins said the biological security working group, which was the first one formed after the 2011 expansion decision, is heavily involved with the Global Health Security Agenda. That initiative is designed to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases worldwide and promote global health security.

In 2014, countries participating in the global health effort agreed on 11 “action packages” to achieve these goals. The partnership is heavily involved in implementing a few of the action packages, particularly the package on biosecurity and biosafety, Jenkins said.

The goals of the package include ensuring that pathogens are transferred safely, personnel are trained to mitigate the deliberate or accidental use of pathogens, and dangerous pathogens are identified, secured, and monitored in a minimal number of facilities.

Jenkins said the working group on chemical weapons agreed last year on a strategic plan that prioritizes chemical weapons security and responses to the use of chemical weapons. The United States and Canada will chair the working group in 2016 and continue the focus on those areas, she said.

Jenkins said the involvement of the chemical industry is an important part of the chemical weapons working group’s strategic plan because the industry works with many of the precursors for chemical weapons and therefore can help ensure the security and safe transfer of such materials. Industry representatives actively participate in the working group’s meetings, she said.

Jenkins noted that all of the work done to destroy the chemical weapons removed from Syria was done by Global Partnership countries.             


A fifth working group, chaired by Canada and the Netherlands, is focused on bringing new member states into the partnership. The most recent additions to the partnership are Chile, Hungary, and Portugal.

Jenkins said that a number of countries have expressed interest in joining the initiative and that the partnership is particularly looking to add members from Africa and the Middle East. Neither region is currently represented.

Russia’s participation in the partnership ended when the other members of the G-8 suspended Moscow’s membership in 2014 in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Jenkins said Russia’s absence is unfortunate but that the partnership continues to make strides in its work. 

Verification Partnership Coalesces

Countries with and without nuclear arms are part of the effort. 

March 2016

By Daniel Horner and Kelsey Davenport

Updated: March 4, 2016

22_NEWS_Verify.JPGAn initiative involving more than two dozen countries has put in place its working groups and has begun its effort to bolster international capabilities for verifying future arms control agreements, officials from the United States and non-nuclear-weapon states said in interviews and email exchanges over the past few months.

A key part of the effort is to expand and develop ways in which nuclear-weapon states can interact with non-nuclear-weapon states in pursuing verification issues.

Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, launched the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification in a speech in Prague in December 2014, calling it a “nontraditional partnership” to “better understand the technical problems of verifying nuclear disarmament and to develop solutions.”

Since then, the partnership has held a kickoff meeting last March in Washington and a plenary meeting in November in Oslo, where it formed three working groups. The groups, which deal with monitoring and verification, on-site inspections, and current and future verification technologies, met in Geneva last month.

In a Dec. 10 interview at the State Department, Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, said the working groups are the “driving engine” of the partnership in its quest to “find technical solutions to future problems.” He said each of the working groups was open to all members of the partnership.

Rose said the idea for the partnership came from a 2014 study of verification issues by the private Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). The study drove home the point that an array of countries, not just the ones with nuclear weapons, would have to work to improve international verification capacity to be prepared for future nuclear arms control agreements, Rose said. That led to a collaboration between the State Department and the NTI, he said.

Andrew Bieniawski, NTI vice president for material security and minimization, participated in the Dec. 10 interview and emphasized that the partnership is an “action-driven, deliverables-driven, results-driven initiative,” pointing to the detailed requirements in the terms of reference for the three working groups.

Rose said the partnership’s work is “all going to be done at the unclassified level” and that the goal is to publish the key documents online.

Broad Participation Stressed

Like Rose and Bieniawski, working group chairs and other participants cited the interaction between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states as an important element of the partnership. In a Feb. 3 email, Robert Floyd of Australia, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office and co-chair of the on-site inspections working group, said, “Nuclear weapon possessor states need to be part of [verification] work, but I don’t think they have a monopoly on good ideas or [are] the only group of states to want confidence in the verification.”

Table 1In a Feb. 4 interview, Kurt Siemon, director for nuclear verification in the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and co-chair of the working group on technical issues, said the approach would be to “listen to the views of everyone in the room” rather than asking participants to “pick and choose from a menu” that the United States has produced.

María Antonieta Jáquez, deputy director-general for disarmament in the Mexican Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said in a Feb. 16 email that the partnership “has provided a very good space” for dialogue between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states. That, she said, “is very welcome” amid the widespread “frustration with the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament” by the nuclear-weapon states and the resulting “very divided” discussions on that subject.

Preparing for the Future

A central challenge for the partnership is that its mission is to develop technologies that will meet the needs of future agreements that are hypothetical. 

Jens Wirstam of Sweden, deputy research director of the Swedish Defense Research Agency and co-chair of the working group on technical issues, said in a Feb. 2 email that the problem is not insurmountable because some elements of verification will be “indifferent to the specifics” of any future agreement. For example, he said, any verification system will have to be able to confirm that an inspected item is one that is limited by the relevant treaty rather than being a mere mock-up. He also cited the need to maintain a chain of custody. Beyond elements such as those, he said he hoped the partnership would create “a set of different building blocks…that could be assembled differently in different contexts.”

In the interview, Bieniawski said the “whole life cycle” of a warhead is within the scope of the partnership but that the partners had agreed that the focus for the first 18 to 24 months would be on the nuclear warhead dismantlement process and the monitored storage of the resulting nuclear materials.                 

Political, Technical Elements

In their email correspondence, the members of key delegations gave varying degrees of weight to the technical and policy components of the undertaking.

In his Jan. 29 email, Col. Marek Sobótka of Poland, co-chair of the group on on-site inspections, highlighted the interplay between the two aspects. The partnership is a technical exercise in that it is directed toward “finding practical ways for cooperation” between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states to create a set of tools that is “ready to use” in designing and verifying “a new future nuclear disarmament treaty,” wrote Sobótka, head of the nonproliferation and disarmament policy division in Poland’s defense ministry. But he said that if the results of the partnership’s work are “properly presented,” they “will prove to the broad international community how complex and difficult” it will be to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament.

Floyd, Sobótka’s co-chair, summarized the relationship between the two elements by saying, “The tasks of the working groups definitely have a technical focus, but verification must be framed with political objectives in mind.”

Wirstam said that, from his standpoint as co-chair of the group on technical issues, “this is a technical exercise, and in a sense[,] a bottom-up approach where we have the answers to the technical questions” and then “policy catches up.” In that way, he said, “there is a parallel to the earlier process leading up to the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], where work on the technical issues was done over an extended period of time before the political conditions matured.”

Classification Issues

A question underlying much of the partnership’s work is how to carry out useful sharing that does not touch on sensitive information.

In a Jan. 27 email to Arms Control Today, Piet de Klerk, ambassador at large for the Netherlands and co-chair of the monitoring and verification working group, said the ability of the group to navigate classification issues “is the crux of the matter.” A key question, he said, is, “What can you show to outsiders…so that they can draw credible conclusions about disarmament steps without violati[ng] classification rules?” As he noted, under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the nuclear-weapon states are prohibited from sharing information with non-nuclear-weapon states about making nuclear weapons.

One of the goals of the working group dealing with on-site inspections is to identify “[w]ays in which verification objectives can be achieved notwithstanding limitations related to safety, security, national interests and non-proliferation inherent in the operations of different types of military, nuclear, and explosive facilities, including through the application of managed access.”

“Managed access” refers to a practice in which the inspecting party and the inspected party negotiate the extent of the inspectors’ access to sensitive areas.

In his Feb. 3 email, Floyd said, “Good managed access rules can go a long way toward resolving differences over inspector access in the field, but a critical balance between inspection intrusiveness and protection of national interests will have to be struck during future negotiations on treaty instruments.”

In the Dec. 10 interview, Rose and Bieniawski emphasized the work of a UK-Norwegian initiative on dismantlement verification. That effort, which began in 2007, is considered pioneering in the way it brought together a nuclear-weapon state and a non-nuclear-weapon state to collaborate on verification issues. In one of the exercises, Norway played the role of the nuclear-weapon state and the United Kingdom played the non-nuclear-weapon state, an example of the way the project was mutually beneficial and was able to navigate the classification issues successfully, Rose said.

The international partnership is going to build on the UK-Norwegian initiative, but go “much deeper,” Bieniawski said.          

Membership Could Expand

Asked about the members of the partnership, a State Department spokesman said in a email exchange last month that, in addition to the five countries that the NPT recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States—Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the Vatican, and the European Union have “attended the various activities” of the partnership.

Some of the sources interviewed for this article indicated that China and Russia, at least officially, have hung back from full participation in some of the activities.

South Africa, which built nuclear weapons and then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, dismantled them and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, is not a member. The State Department spokesman said, “South Africa’s technical expertise and its own disarmament record would make it a valued addition” to the effort.

The partnership also does not include India, Israel, or Pakistan, nuclear-armed states that have remained outside the NPT. In the interview, Rose said NPT membership is not a specific requirement but that “all current members of the partnership are members of the NPT.”

Rose said the focus for the initial membership was countries that had expressed an interest in verification and could provide technical expertise. Some of the invited countries did not accept, he said.

He said that, at the partnership’s plenary meeting last November, the countries did not come to agreement on the issue of membership expansion but agreed to discuss it at the next plenary, scheduled for June in Tokyo.

The officials interviewed differed on the importance of expanding the membership. Some argued for inclusion of the non-NPT nuclear-armed states and greater representation of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some said there was no need to expand the partnership in the immediate future. Sobótka said that a “smaller number of participants will inevitably result in obtaining relatively quick progress in developing a solid foundation” for the partnership, “which should further increase its attractiveness to potential new members in future.”

Note: After this article was posted online, the State Department released information indicating that the Tokyo plenary will take place in June. The article has been updated to reflect that information.

Terminate MOX Fuel Plant, Budget Says

Designed to make plutonium fuel, the plant is now too expensive, officials say. 

March 2016

By Kingston Reif and Daniel Horner

The Obama administration is seeking a permanent stop to construction of the facility that has been the centerpiece of the effort to get rid of plutonium withdrawn from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Under the plan, described in budget documents released Feb. 9 and a conference call with journalists the following day, the administration would spend $270 million in the coming fiscal year for termination costs for the plant, with costs of a similar magnitude expected for the next few years. At the same time, the administration would spend $15 million in fiscal year 2017 for preliminary work on the new plutonium-disposition path that the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have chosen.

The proposal was part of the administration’s $1.8 billion request for NNSA nonproliferation programs in fiscal year 2017.

The plant, which is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, was designed to turn surplus weapons plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in nuclear power reactors. Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is required to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium.

The Obama administration was widely seen as skeptical of the viability of the MOX fuel strategy since it announced in 2013 that it was considering alternatives. (See ACT, May 2013.) In the recently released budget documents, the NNSA said studies it had commissioned “confirm that the MOX fuel approach will be significantly more expensive than anticipated and will require approximately $800 million to $1 billion annually for decades.”

The new approach, known as “dilute and dispose,” would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. During the Feb. 10 conference call, Kelly Cummins, NNSA associate assistant deputy administrator for fissile materials disposition, said the annual costs would rise to $300-400 million.

Supporters of the MOX fuel plant, led by the South Carolina congressional delegation, have suggested that the new approach could face technical, legal, and political obstacles.

Cummins said the termination costs for the MOX fuel plant were expected to total $500-750 million. But she emphasized that those figures are a rough estimate and are “subject to negotiation” with the contractors hired to build the plant.

The lead contractor is CB&I Areva MOX Services Group.

Nuclear Security Programs Cut

Excluding the MOX fuel program, the Obama administration is asking for $1.5 billion for NNSA nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism programs, a decrease of $62.4 million, or 3.8 percent, from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The drop is even steeper when measured against what the NNSA projected it would request for these programs in its fiscal year 2016 submission, which was issued in February 2015. The agency had said it planned to ask for $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2017, or $185 million more than the actual proposal.

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which has the task of improving the security of nuclear materials around the world, securing orphaned or disused radiological sources, and strengthening nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. The program would get $337 million, a $89.6 million reduction from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA is requesting $46 million for the international security subcomponent of this program, a decrease of $84.5 million from the fiscal year 2016 enacted level and $182 million from the level projected in last year’s request. According to budget documents, the decline from the enacted level “reflects a commitment to reduce” unspent money left over from previous fiscal years by spending it in fiscal year 2017, permitting a lower request.

In a Feb. 18 email to Arms Control Today, an NNSA spokesperson said the agency does “not have exact projections of carryover” but anticipates “sufficient funds to implement priority tasks” in fiscal year 2017.

In addition, the budget submission reveals that the NNSA is now planning to secure 4,394 buildings containing high-priority radioactive nuclear material by 2033, a change from the previous goal of securing 8,500 sites by 2044.

The NNSA spokesperson said the revision is the result of shifting the focus “from a primarily protect[ion]-based approach to one that emphasizes permanent threat reduction through the removal of sources and promotion of non-isotopic, alternative technologies, when feasible.”

The Material Management and Minimization program, which supports the removal of civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium around the world and converts HEU-fueled research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to the use of low-enriched uranium, would receive $341 million, an increase of $24.5 million over the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

Nuclear material removal activities would get $68.9 million, a decrease of $46 million. The drop is based in part on “a reduced scope of work” in fiscal year 2017 due to “the completion of several major initiatives in time for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, including completion of the removal of all HEU and plutonium from Japan’s Fast Critical Assembly,” according to budget documents. 

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for Nonproliferation and Arms Control activities would fall slightly, from a fiscal year 2016 appropriation of $130 million to $125 million. Spending for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development activities, which focus on technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations, would fall to $394 million from its $419 million fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA nonproliferation budget request also includes $13 million to support the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, which passed a critical point in its implementation in January (see "Iran Nuclear Deal Implemented"). 

Funding Proposal Questioned

Some observers continue to question the wisdom of proposed reductions in funding for NNSA nuclear and radiological security activities, especially in the run-up to the final nuclear security summit, which is scheduled to take place in Washington March 31-April 1 (see "Nuclear Summit Seeks Sustainable Results").

An Energy Department task force report on NNSA nonproliferation programs released last year expressed concern about the recent trend of falling budgets for those programs, noting that appropriations declined from $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2013 to $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2015, a reduction of 25 percent. “The need to counter current and likely future challenges to nonproliferation justifies increased, rather than reduced, investment in this area,” the report said. (See ACT, May 2015.)

Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in a Feb. 19 interview that “to propose big cuts in nuclear security spending weeks before hosting the last nuclear security summit is a mistake that will undermine U.S. leadership.”

“Congress should act to correct President [Barack] Obama’s mistake,” added Bunn, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors.

During the Feb. 10 conference call, retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the NNSA administrator, disputed the claim that the budget request sends a bad signal ahead of the summit.

The proposed fiscal year 2017 spending levels on nonproliferation programs reflect “a hard-headed business decision about where the money is and how we pay for all the things we need to do,” Klotz said. “We’re satisfied with what we have.”

Interim Step on HEU Reactors Proposed

Experts outline a plan for converting some reactors now using weapons-grade fuel. 

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory, shown above in a May 2013 photo, is one of the high-performance U.S. research reactors that uses highly enriched uranium fuel and is not able to use existing types of low-enriched uranium fuel. (Photo credit: Idaho National Laboratory)The U.S. government should seek to convert some civilian research reactors currently using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to lower-enriched HEU fuel as an interim step on the way to fueling the reactors with a new kind of low-enriched uranium (LEU), according to a new report from a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report, which was released on Jan. 28, also recommends that the White House develop a 50-year strategy that evaluates future U.S. civilian needs for neutrons and “how these can best be provided by reactors and other sources that do not use highly enriched uranium.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said it had “concerns” about the recommendation for an interim conversion step. In a Feb. 24 email to Arms Control Today, a spokesperson for the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, said the recommendation “runs counter to” the U.S. policy of pursuing “the minimization of the civilian use of HEU globally.”

Research reactors fueled by weapons-grade HEU continue to be used to produce neutrons for research and other civilian applications. Since 1978 the United States has sought to minimize and where possible eliminate the use of HEU in civilian research reactors. Currently, 74 such reactors remain to be converted or shut down, according to the report. Eight reactors in the United States still use HEU fuel.

Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent uranium-235, and LEU is enriched to less than 20 percent. Converting reactors to LEU use would reduce the risks that this material could be used to make a nuclear explosive device.

The report expressed concern that the conversion of the remaining reactors is taking much longer than originally envisioned. It noted that the U.S. goal in 2004 was to complete the conversions by 2014 but that the goal today is to complete them by 2035.

“There are significant technical and nontechnical obstacles associated with eliminating HEU from civilian research reactors,” the report said. 

One obstacle has been that making the higher-density LEU fuel required to convert high-performance research reactors in the United States and Europe has turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated. The report warned that the new fuel might not even be available by 2035.

Consequently, in order to reduce the use of weapons-grade HEU in high-performance reactors, the report called for conversion of these reactors to the use of fuel that has an enrichment level of 25 to 45 percent. All but one of the nine high-performance reactors in the United States and Europe that use weapons-grade HEU could be converted in this manner in approximately five years, the report said.

Reducing the fuel enrichment to 45 percent “cuts the attractiveness” of the fuel for use in a nuclear explosive device “by about 40 percent,” compared to 90 percent enrichment, according to the report. The report calculated that, by pursuing this approach for the eight reactors, the use of approximately 3,400 kilograms of weapons-grade HEU could be avoided until the reactors are converted to run on LEU in roughly 12 to 17 years.

In a Feb. 3 posting on the website of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, William Tobey, a senior fellow at the center and a member of the National Academies panel that produced the report, wrote that the interim-step recommendation “should in no way be construed as lack of support for eliminating civilian use of HEU. Rather, it is recognition of the fact that estimates of when conversion would be possible have changed, and an effort to minimize risk in light of those changes.”

But another expert disagreed with the recommendation, expressing a concern similar to the NNSA’s about the impact on the global effort to phase out civilian use of HEU. In a Feb. 24 email, Alan Kuperman, a political scientist at the University of Texas, said one problem with the National Academies’ approach is that it “would reduce the prospect of converting existing high-performance research reactors to LEU fuel since their operators would resist the expense and inconvenience of having to convert twice.”

The most significant nontechnical obstacle to converting the remaining HEU-fueled civilian reactors identified by the report is that more than 40 percent of these reactors are located in Russia. The report said that  “conversion of its domestic research reactors is not a high national priority for Russia” and noted that “Russian-U.S. collaboration on research reactor conversion...has all but ceased during the past year” due to the downturn in relations between the two countries over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Due to the downturn, the NNSA is no longer planning to support the conversion of 41 reactors in Russia, according to the department’s fiscal year 2017 budget submission. This figure includes both civilian reactors and reactors used to power Russian icebreaker ships.

The National Academies report recommended that the United States seek to engage “Russian scientists and engineers to continue scientific exchanges and interactions that formed the basis for previous progress in....HEU minimization,” primarily in countries that used to be members of the Soviet Union.

In 2012, Congress tasked the National Academies with assessing the progress toward eliminating all worldwide use of HEU in research reactor fuel and medical isotope production facilities. The January report examined the status of conversion of research reactors to LEU use. Another report examining the status of medical isotope production without HEU targets is to be issued later this year.

Julia Phillips, former vice president and chief technology officer at Sandia National Laboratories, chaired the committee that authored the January report.

Iridium in Iraq: Wake Up Call on Radioactive Source Security

Luckily, radioactive material that went missing near Basra, Iraq in November was found intact on Sunday ten miles from the city at a gas station in Zubair, allaying fears that it was intended for an explosive device designed to disperse radioactive material, a so-called dirty bomb. It is important not to over-hype the threat posed by a dirty bomb: weaponizing radioactive materials is difficult and dangerous. But given the prevalence of radioactive sources, the international community can and must do more to ensure that these materials are securely stored, because detonation of a dirty bomb...

Smugglers Arrested in Moldova

Three men were arrested in Moldova earlier this year for attempting to sell radioactive materials to an undercover police officer posing as a middleman for the Islamic State group.

November 2015

By Kelsey Davenport

Three men were arrested in Moldova earlier this year for attempting to sell radioactive materials to an undercover police officer posing as a middleman for the Islamic State group, according to an Associated Press story published last month.

According to the Oct. 6 story, a joint operation involving the Moldovan police and the FBI led to the arrest in February, after the alleged smugglers gave the undercover officer cesium in exchange for money.

Certain types of cesium could be used in a so-called dirty bomb, which combines conventional explosives with radioactive sources to spread contamination.

State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed the operation during an Oct. 7 press briefing and said the continued smuggling of radioactive material has “grave consequences.”

According to the AP article, the seller claimed to have enough cesium-137 for a dirty bomb and wanted to sell it to the Islamic State for the purpose of bombing U.S. citizens.

Three smugglers were arrested after selling cesium-135 to the Moldovan police officer as a test of his intentions before selling him the cesium-137. Cesium-135 is not potent enough for use in a dirty bomb. The AP reported that a fourth man in the smuggling ring, reportedly in possession of the cesium-137, which is suitable for a dirty bomb, escaped.

Moldovan authorities quoted in the AP story said they thought that the radioactive material came from Russia and that the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations was making it more difficult to track smugglers.

Kirby said that cooperation with Russia on stemming illicit trafficking in nuclear materials is “certainly an issue where we believe there can be cooperative efforts.” There have been such efforts, and “we hope that there will continue to be,” he said.

The February arrests are among several in recent years involving illicit trafficking of radioactive material through Moldova. Most recently, in December 2014, six people were arrested in the eastern European country for trying to sell radioactive materials and uranium-238. U-238 is the most common isotope of uranium, but unlike U-235, it cannot be used as a nuclear explosive material.

The International Atomic Energy Agency tracks theft, loss, and unauthorized use of radioactive materials in its Incident and Trafficking Database, which receives information from about 130 countries. Between 1993 and 2014, the agency confirmed 2,734 illicit incidents involving radioactive materials.

From ‘Atoms for Peace’ to an IAEA Nuclear Fuel Bank

The International Atomic Energy Agency has just established a fuel bank in Kazakhstan, an important accomplishment in supporting nuclear energy and nonproliferation. 

October 2015

By Tariq Rauf

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazakhstan, and countries contributing funds to the IAEA fuel bank attend a ceremony in Astana establishing the bank on August 27. (Photo credit: Peter Lulle Johansson/Cawa Media)On August 27, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Kazakhstan signed an agreement establishing a fuel bank of low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The ceremony in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, marked a milestone in the progress of an initiative on facilitating access to nuclear energy and strengthening nonproliferation that originated more than a decade ago.

The LEU bank is to be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant at Öskemen (formerly Ust Kamenogorsk) in Kazakhstan. It is to be owned and operated by the IAEA as part of the agency’s effort to provide assurances of nuclear fuel supply.

It is important to recall that as far back as December 8, 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations called on states

to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an International Atomic Energy Agency…[that] could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material…would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.1

A half century later, in 2003, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei called for a new approach to the most sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle—uranium enrichment and plutonium separation—that would assure supplies of nuclear fuel for civilian uses and preserve states’ nuclear fuel-cycle options while minimizing the establishment of additional enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.2 Over the next four years, some 12 different proposals followed, ranging from government assurances to international nuclear fuel-cycle centers to an LEU reserve and an LEU bank.3

Nuclear power has been a key part of the world’s electricity supply for more than 50 years and will continue to be one of the lowest emitters of carbon dioxide among energy sources through the entire life cycle. Like other energy sources, nuclear energy has advantages and drawbacks with regard to its impact on the environment and its social and economic dimensions.

According to the IAEA, global expansion in nuclear power generating capacity is projected to expand.4 Today, 30 countries use nuclear power generation, and this number is likely to increase in the next couple of decades. There are 438 nuclear powers reactors in operation currently, providing about 11 percent of electricity generated globally.

Nuclear fuel for power plants generally consists of uranium enriched to 2 to 4 percent uranium-235. A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a fingertip contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil. More than 60 square miles of photovoltaic panels or about 180 square miles of wind turbines would be required to produce as much electricity as by a multiunit nuclear power plant.5

Global uranium-enrichment capacity presently exceeds total annual demand, but with the projected increase in reactors, enrichment capacity will need to increase. Currently, commercial enrichment is carried out in China, France, Russia, and the United States and by Urenco,6 which has plants in Europe and the United States. Small-scale enrichment facilities are operating in Argentina, Brazil, India, Iran, Japan, and Pakistan. Assurance-of-supply mechanisms such as the LEU bank are designed to be a backup to any disruption in commercial supply of LEU for nuclear fuel for existing and new users of nuclear power, thus contributing to confidence in nuclear energy while minimizing potential proliferation risks by avoiding the construction of new enrichment facilities.  

Origins of the LEU Bank

In September 2006, the co-chairmen of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Ted Turner, offered $50 million from NTI adviser Warren Buffett to help create an IAEA-owned and -operated LEU bank on the condition that the IAEA raise $100 million from other sources for that purpose.7 To provide a location, Kazakhstan offered to host the IAEA fuel bank.8 By May 2009, the IAEA had received funds and pledges in excess of $100 million9 from the European Union, Kuwait, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, thus meeting the NTI funding criterion.

On December 3, 2010, the IAEA Board of Governors approved the establishment of the LEU bank10based on the following criteria: (1) LEU supply to a nuclear power plant is disrupted; (2) the recipient state is unable to secure LEU from the commercial market, by state-to-state arrangements, or by any other such means; (3) the state has in place a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and is in compliance with this agreement; and (4) the state has concluded a supply agreement with the IAEA and has paid the full cost to replenish the supplied LEU from the bank. The board and IAEA member states emphasized that the additional options for assurance of supply will supplement the rights that exist under Article IV of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and will not limit states’ nuclear-fuel-cycle choices.

Host state agreement. Negotiations between the IAEA and Kazakhstan on a host state agreement governing the establishment and operation of the LEU bank were unduly protracted and took nearly three-and-a-half years due to the inexperience of the IAEA Secretariat and Kazakhstani authorities, as well as the demands of the IAEA. The agreement was finalized in January 2015, approved by Kazakhstani authorities in May, approved by the IAEA board in June, and signed by representatives of the two parties at the Astana ceremony in August.

The agreement is valid for 10 years and comprises 19 articles. It defines the fuel bank as the physical stock of IAEA LEU located at the IAEA LEU Storage Facility. The LEU will be stored in up to 60 industry-standard cylinders for enriched uranium hexafluoride. Kazakhstan will lease the storage facility to the IAEA for a token charge of one euro annually, and Kazakhstan will cover costs relating to the implementation of safeguards in connection with the bank.

The bank will be the property of and under the jurisdiction and control of the IAEA. The technical staff of the Ulba plant will be able to enter the facility without advance IAEA permission only in the event of an emergency or hazard or threat requiring urgent action. Emergency preparedness and response, as well as safety, security, and safeguards, will be the responsibility of Kazakhstan. For the purpose of applying safeguards, Kazakhstan is to establish an LEU storage facility separate from the facilities at the Ulba plant.

The fuel bank is to be safeguarded at all times against natural and other hazards; unauthorized removal or diversion; damage or destruction, including sabotage; and forcible seizure. All questions concerning civil liability for nuclear damage are to be governed by the Protocol to Amend the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, to which Kazakhstan is a party.

“Flags.” It has always been recognized by the IAEA Secretariat that, for the LEU bank to provide a credible assurance of supply, the nuclear material acquired by the agency should not require the consent of the supplier state for the agency to provide the nuclear material to a member state as long as the arrangements between the IAEA and the recipient state were in accordance with the criteria approved by the board for such transactions. Accordingly, in 2009, ElBaradei stated that the agency would purchase the LEU using its standard procedures for open tender from vendors willing and able to provide LEU or its components—natural uranium, conversion, and enrichment services—free of conditions that conflict with the purpose of the establishment of the fuel bank.11 This meant that the IAEA would be able to supply LEU from the bank to member states without the prior consent of the supplier.

Subsequently, some supplier states suggested that it would be necessary to uphold the obligations attached to nuclear material acquired by the agency and that the IAEA would need to respect the obligations, such as the need by the IAEA to obtain the supplier’s consent when providing the LEU to a member state.

The secretariat objected to this insertion of conditions, known as “flags,” and insisted that the assurance of supply provided by the fuel bank would be implemented by the secretariat solely in accordance with the provisions of the Statute of the IAEA, as well as any relevant stipulations of the board. The secretariat said the IAEA would acquire LEU for the bank without any conditions that conflict with the purpose of the establishment of the IAEA LEU bank—that is, credible assurance of supply.

The secretariat noted that, in the case of the IAEA LEU reserve established at Angarsk, Russia had given the IAEA the authority to transfer Russian-owned LEU from the reserve to recipient states through an IAEA supply agreement covering nonproliferation, safety, and security criteria.12

The model supply agreement between the IAEA and a recipient state, as approved in December 2009 by the board for the LEU bank, includes the following conditions:

•   The recipient state has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA.

•   The agency has drawn a conclusion on the nondiversion of declared nuclear material for the state in the most recent Safeguards Implementation Report, and there currently are no issues relating to safeguards implementation regarding the state under consideration by the IAEA board.

•   The supplied LEU shall be used by the state exclusively for fuel fabrication for the generation of energy at the power plant experiencing disruption of fuel supply and shall remain at the power plant unless the state and the IAEA have agreed on a different location. 

•   The supplied LEU and any special fissionable material13 produced through its use, including subsequent generations of produced special fissionable material, shall be stored or reprocessed or otherwise altered in form or content by the state only on conditions and in facilities agreed with the IAEA.

•   The supplied LEU shall not be further enriched, retransferred, or re-exported by the state unless agreed with the IAEA.

•   The supplied LEU shall be subject to the conditions necessary for the IAEA to implement its obligations to the state or states from which the LEU originated or in which the LEU was processed.14

•   The supplied LEU shall not be used by the state for the manufacture of any nuclear weapon or any nuclear explosive device, for research on or the development of any nuclear weapon or any nuclear explosive device, or in such a way as to further any military purpose.

•   The safeguards rights and responsibilities of the IAEA provided for in Article XII.A of the Statute of the IAEA, regarding safeguards and noncompliance, are applicable to the supplied LEU and shall be implemented and maintained by the IAEA.

•   Article XII.C of the IAEA Statute, regarding the reporting of noncompliance to the UN Security Council, shall apply with respect to any noncompliance with the provisions of the supply agreement.

•   The applicable IAEA safety standards and measures are to be followed by the state for the transport, handling, storage, and use of the supplied LEU and for the operation of the power plant. 

•   Adequate physical protection measures shall be maintained by the state with respect to the supplied LEU, in accordance with the applicable IAEA fundamentals and recommendations.

•   The recipient state shall take responsibility for all liability for nuclear damage caused by a nuclear incident associated with the use, handling, storage, or transport of the supplied LEU from the time the material leaves the IAEA fuel bank for shipment to the recipient state, and it shall hold the IAEA harmless against any such liability, but in any case covered by an international civil nuclear liability convention, liability for nuclear damage shall be addressed in accordance with the provisions of that convention.15

Thus, the conditions required by the IAEA to be accepted by a member state requesting LEU from the IAEA fuel bank are more stringent and comprehensive than any national export controls and the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In addition, the agency must buy LEU or its components only from sources that will accept the IAEA flag and will not insist on their own national flag. Furthermore, the LEU or its components acquired for the fuel bank will need to be free of any previous unresolved commercial disputes or other burdens that could in any way impair or affect the purposes of the bank.

Profile of the LEU. The LEU will be stored in standard steel cylinders, which are 30 inches in diameter and have a capacity of about 62 kilograms of uranium enriched to 5 percent. LEU does not deteriorate and can be safely stored for many years. It is a white-gray, waxy solid during storage and transport. It is not nuclear waste, nor is any waste generated by simply storing it. Thus, it has no adverse environmental impact when properly stored in certified cylinders.

With open-source nuclear industry data, the notional or illustrative requirements can be estimated for enrichment levels and quantities of LEU required for reloads for the safe operation of the main types of power reactors currently in operation or under construction in non-nuclear-weapon states (tables 1 and 2).

To provide the IAEA fuel bank with minimal capacity to assure at least one reload for each reactor design currently on the market, the projected 90 metric tons of LEU in the bank notionally could contain the following ratio of quantities of LEU at three different enrichment levels: from 51.3 to 58.5 metric tons with U-235 assay of the highest enrichment level of 4.95 percent, from 26.0 to 37.0 metric tons with U-235 assay of middle enrichment level of 3.20 percent, and from 1.80 to 5.40 metric tons with U-235 assay of low enrichment level of 1.60 percent, for the combined total of about 90 metric tons. Thus, the three enrichment levels and the related quantities of LEU at those enrichments should be able to supply the broadest range of reactors achievable.

The contractual tails assay (fraction)16 of the LEU would be optimized at the time of signing of the purchase contract, taking into account the relevant nuclear industry data.17

LEU procurement and acquisition. The IAEA fuel bank project will involve the procurement, acquisition, and delivery of the LEU, as well as storage cylinders and transport overpacks, costing at least $130 million. This will be the largest single procurement in the agency’s history and its first procurement of significant quantities of enriched uranium.

As the agency’s external auditor cautioned in 2011, this venture poses high risks to the agency. Because of the factors noted above, in particular flags or consent rights, and the IAEA’s status as an international organization, the logical and safe option would appear to be that of buying LEU or its components directly from the governments of member states. This would assure accountability, quality control, and supply of LEU in accordance with the IAEA statute and the decision of the IAEA board on the establishment of the bank. Other potential options could include buying the material from uranium-enrichment companies, nuclear power utilities, or traders and brokers. Options for buying from sources other than member states would pose major risks and uncertainties regarding liens, liability, corruption, and the ability to supply LEU free of flags or consent rights.

In approving the establishment of the bank in December 2010, the board instructed the director-general to “develop a detailed financial and administrative plan for the on-going operation of the LEU bank to ensure its effective management and sustainability.” The board said it would “provide direction on governance and accountability of the LEU bank project.”18

In the technical briefings to member states on the LEU bank, it appears that the secretariat has not given the board detailed financial and administrative plans or provided any detailed information on the agency’s plans for LEU procurement and acquisition. For its part, the board has not exercised the required direction on governance and accountability.

In this regard, the secretariat, the board, and donor states have been delinquent in meeting the requirements for governance and accountability. The secretariat has deflected questions by citing confidentiality considerations of the IAEA procurement policy. The donors have failed to insist on such transparency and governance, even though accountability for tens of millions of taxpayer dollars is at stake. Even a 2013 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office failed to ask the relevant questions and largely missed the issues of project management and proper expenditure of LEU bank funds in accordance with the relevant criteria stipulated by the U.S. government for U.S. funds.19

Given the importance of the IAEA fuel bank and the magnitude of funds involved, the donor states, the EU, and the NTI should call for full disclosure of the complete administrative, financial, and procurement plans related to the bank. As this project is funded solely by extrabudgetary funds rather than monies from the regular IAEA budget, the donors are well within their rights to demand and to receive full and complete information on all aspects of the establishment of the bank.

LEU delivery requirements. A key element in the establishment of the fuel bank is to minimize the risk to the agency of civil and nuclear liability, loss and damage, and transportation-related risks in connection with the handling and transport of the LEU. The agency will not be in a position to cover such liability and risks adequately or to defend itself against claims brought by nonstate parties.

The need to avoid such risks is not unique to the agency. Many utilities and other customers of nuclear material routinely sign contracts for their supplies on the basis of “delivery at point” or “delivered duty paid”—that is, delivery of the nuclear material by the supplier to the buyer’s site, thus consigning all transport and delivery risks to the supplier. This is a well-established practice under International Commercial Terms20 of the International Chamber of Commerce. This is not merely a commercial consideration but an essential requirement inherent to the technical specifications for the fuel bank that the IAEA takes ownership of the LEU only at the Ulba plant, the location of the bank, and the supplier is responsible for LEU handling and transport, including safety and security, from the initial point of supply to the destination, the bank site. During storage of the LEU at the Ulba plant, liability is to be covered by insurance taken out by the IAEA and Kazakhstan.

The recipient state must take ownership at the Ulba plant of any LEU supplied from the bank by the IAEA and would be responsible for onward transport of the LEU and for liability. Under such an arrangement, transport and liability become the responsibility of the recipient state at the handover point at the Ulba plant. The objective is to minimize IAEA liability. Similar logic will be applied to the delivery of LEU to the IAEA by Russia at the seaport of St. Petersburg from the IAEA guaranteed reserve at Angarsk and subsequently from the IAEA to a recipient state.

Transit agreements. As a landlocked country in the steppes of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is dependent on Russia for land transport of its nuclear exports and imports. The rail route to the seaport of St. Petersburg, the nearest port, is several thousand kilometers long. Another rail route, to the Chinese seaport of Shanghai, apparently is under consideration. Transport of nuclear cargoes has to be properly licensed and carried out under internationally recognized safety and liability requirements.

On June 18, the IAEA and Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, signed a transit agreement for the transport of LEU through Russian territory to and from the fuel bank in Kazakhstan. Rosatom will be the executive authority to implement the transit agreement and is obligated to ensure the safe, secure, and timely delivery through Russian territory of IAEA-owned LEU. The LEU cargo would be immune from any form of interference and free of any restrictions and taxation by Russia.

Assurance of Supply

More than a half century after Eisenhower articulated his vision for the IAEA, there finally were concrete steps toward realizing that vision. An IAEA LEU reserve was set up in March 2010 at Angarsk, the United Kingdom’s government-to-government Nuclear Fuel Assurance took effect in March 2011,21 the United States’ American Assured Fuel Supply22 came into force in August 2011, and the IAEA fuel bank in Kazakhstan is expected to be operational in 2017 when it receives its stock of LEU. These achievements together mark the evolution of a new framework for the utilization of nuclear energy that supports the exercise of the “inalienable right” of all states-parties to the NPT to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as acknowledged in Article IV of the treaty, and strengthens nonproliferation measures with regard to the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Although a host state agreement and a transit agreement have been concluded for the IAEA fuel bank, major challenges lie ahead. Originally, it was envisaged that the bank would be functional by the end of 2014, but now the expected start date is 2017 or even later. That could mean the effort would span the terms of three directors-general: ElBaradei until 2009; Yukiya Amano, the current director-general, whose term ends in 2017; and Amano’s successor, who will take office in December 2017.

The fuel bank will be an important accomplishment for reliance on nuclear energy and for nonproliferation with respect to enrichment facilities. To avoid squandering this impending victory, however, the IAEA and its member states need to refocus on the original mandate of the IAEA statute and the fuel bank.

The purpose of the bank is to serve as an insurance mechanism to back up the commercial market in nuclear fuel. Its three reloads’ worth of LEU will not distort the market as more than 380 reloads are provided annually by the market. As the project now is well into implementation, the secretariat should exercise extra care in avoiding excessive complication, overstaffing, bureaucratization, poor managerial control, and extended timelines for completion. Donors to the LEU bank need to exercise stricter oversight of cost control, project management, financial accountability, procurement, and oversight and may even consider calling for an audit of the project by an independent team of technical and management experts drawn from nuclear energy ministries, regulators, and industry.

States considering supplying LEU to the IAEA for the bank must not insist on prior consent rights, but should agree to accept the IAEA criteria for governing the supply and use of fuel from the bank. Donations of LEU to the IAEA also could be considered. For example, under the agreement signed in Vienna on July 14 by Iran and six world powers—China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the United States—Iran agreed to reduce its existing stock to less than 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride enriched up to 3.67 percent U-235 and to sell or down-blend the remaining quantities. Iran could take the high road to further demonstrate its good faith by donating its LEU or selling it at a discounted price to the IAEA for the fuel bank.

Should Iran decide to do so, the IAEA and its member states should accept the offer promptly. The LEU could be stored temporarily at the IAEA LEU reserve at Angarsk until the bank facility at Ulba is operational. That would enable Iran to meet the agreement’s timeline for reducing its stock.

Finally, as discussed above, in the context of an expected rise in demand for enrichment, existing assurance-of-supply mechanisms already contribute to addressing vulnerabilities in the supply of nuclear fuel for nuclear power programs while reducing possible nuclear proliferation risks by obviating the needs for additional new national enrichment capabilities. In a world with perhaps 500 or more nuclear power reactors by 2030, it would be inadvisable to have dozens of countries with enrichment programs. The IAEA LEU bank will further bolster assurance of supply. Thus, states would not need to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle to ensure adequate supplies of fuel for their nuclear power programs. In the end, true security regarding the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle can come only through the multilateralization of all uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation facilities, buttressed by a multilateral, verifiable treaty prohibiting the production and stockpiling of weapons-usable nuclear material.       


1.  Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1960), pp. 813-822.

2.  “Curbing Nuclear Proliferation: An Interview With Mohamed ElBaradei,” Arms Control Today, November 2003; Tariq Rauf and Fiona Simpson, “The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Is It Time for a Multilateral Approach?” Arms Control Today, December 2004.

3.  Tariq Rauf and Zoryana Vovchok, “Fuel for Thought,” IAEA Bulletin, No. 49-2 (March 2008), https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/49204845963.pdf.

4.  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “IAEA Sees Global Nuclear Power Capacity Expanding in Decades to Come,” September 8, 2015, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/iaea-sees-global-nuclear-power-capacity-expanding-decades-come.

5.  Nuclear Energy Institute, “FAQ About Nuclear Energy,” n.d., http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/FAQ-About-Nuclear-Energy.

6.  Urenco is jointly owned by the Dutch government, the UK government, and two German utilities.

7.  Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), “NTI Commits $50 Million to Create IAEA Nuclear Fuel Bank,” September 19, 2006, http://www.nti.org/newsroom/news/nti-commits-50-million-iaea-nuclear-fuel-bank/.

8.  IAEA, “Communication Dated 18 May 2009 Received From the Permanent Mission of Kazakhstan to the Agency Enclosing a Position Paper Regarding the Establishment of IAEA Nuclear Fuel Banks,” INFCIRC/753, May 19, 2009; IAEA, “Communication Dated 11 January 2010 Received From the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the Agency Enclosing a Position Regarding the Establishment of IAEA Nuclear Fuel Banks,” INFCIRC/782, January 15, 2010.

9.  The European Union contributed 25 million euros; Kuwait, $10 million; Norway, $5 million; the United Arab Emirates, $10 million; and the United States, $49.5 million. See IAEA, “Assurance of Supply: Proposal for the Establishment of an IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank: Report by the Director General,” GOV/2009/30, May 20, 2009, para. 5 (hereinafter 2009 IAEA assurance of supply proposal).

10.  IAEA, “Assurance of Nuclear Fuel Supply,” GOV/2010/70, December 3, 2010.

11.  2009 IAEA assurance of supply proposal, n. 9.

12.  IAEA, “Request by the Russian Federation Regarding Its Initiative to Establish a Reserve of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) for the Supply of LEU to the IAEA for Its Member States,” GOV/2009/76, November 11, 2009, art. I(2), art. I(8); IAEA, “Assurance of Supply: Establishment of an IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank for the Supply of LEU to Member States,” GOV/2010/67, November 26, 2010, attachment 1 (articles III and VI of the “Model Agreement” between the member state and the IAEA in order to obtain LEU from the agency) (hereinafter 2010 IAEA assurance of supply establishment document).

13.  Special fissionable material is defined by the IAEA as “plutonium-239, uranium-233, uranium enriched in the isotopes 235 or 233, [or] any material containing one or more of the foregoing.” IAEA, “IAEA Safeguards Glossary, 2001 Edition,” International Nuclear Verification Series, No. 3 (June 2002), p. 30, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/iaea_safeguards_glossary.pdf.

14.  This does not mean national export control obligations, but rather relevant provisions of the IAEA statute and criteria approved by the board in IAEA document GOV/2010/67. An internal IAEA Secretariat historical note of February 29, 2012, on the IAEA fuel bank said the secretariat would interpret any supplier-state conditions on the provision of LEU to the agency for the fuel bank in accordance with the IAEA statute, meaning that the LEU would be made available to any eligible member state as determined by the director-general in accordance with the agency’s criteria as established by the board in GOV/2010/67.

15.  2010 IAEA assurance of supply establishment document.

16.  The fixing of the tails assay is an economic compromise that balances the unit costs of feed material against the unit costs of separative work. If feed is cheap and separative work is expensive (for example, if the cost of electricity is high), then a relatively high tails assay is advisable. As the price of natural uranium rises and enrichment processes become more energy efficient, the appropriate tails assay should drop to lower values.

17.  See, for example, the publications Ux Weekly, NuclearFuel, and Nuclear Market Review.

18.  2010 IAEA assurance of supply establishment document, para. 17.

19.  U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Nonproliferation: IAEA Has Made Progress in Implementing Critical Programs but Continues to Face Challenges,” GAO-13-139, May 2013, http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/654714.pdf.

20.  International Commercial Terms consist of a series of predefined commercial terms that are widely used in international commercial transactions or procurement processes. They deal with costs and risks associated with the transportation and delivery of goods. See International Chamber of Commerce, “The Incoterms Rules,” n.d., http://www.iccwbo.org/products-and-services/trade-facilitation/incoterms-2010/the-incoterms-rules/.

21.  The Nuclear Fuel Assurance guarantees supply of nuclear material from the UK to an IAEA member state, provided that the state meets the supply criteria established by the IAEA board. See IAEA, “Assurance of Supply for Nuclear Fuel,” October 31, 2011, https://www.iaea.org/OurWork/ST/NE/NEFW/Assurance-of-Supply/nuclear-fuel-assurance.html

22.  U.S. Department of Energy, “Notice of Availability: American Assured Fuel Supply,” 76 Fed. Reg. 160 (August 18, 2011), p. 51357.

Tariq Rauf is director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He was head of verification and security policy coordination at the International Atomic Energy Agency, reporting to the director-general, from 2002 to 2011. He was coordinator for the agency’s activities dealing with its planned fuel bank and other fuel-supply assurances from 2003 to 2012. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report on Joint Statements

March 2015

A year out from the final Nuclear Security Summit, a report from the Arms Control Association (ACA) and the Partnership for Global Security (PGS) concludes that multilateral collaborative efforts targeting key areas are improving global nuclear material security. However, narrowly focused commitments at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will only result in incremental improvements, not a sufficiently cohesive global nuclear security system and lasting legacy for the summit process.

Illicit Traffickers Arrested in Moldova

Seven people were arrested in Moldova in December for allegedly smuggling radioactive materials that could be used in a dirty bomb.

January/February 2015

By Kelsey Davenport

Seven people were arrested in Moldova in December for allegedly smuggling radioactive materials that could be used in a dirty bomb.

Dirty bombs combine conventional explosives with radioactive sources to spread contamination.

Ion Bodrug, an official in Moldova’s Interior Ministry, said at a Dec. 9 press conference that raids in Chisinau and two other towns found 200 grams of uranium-238, one kilogram of mercury, and one kilogram of a radioactive substance.

U-238 is the most common isotope of uranium. Unlike U-235, it cannot be used as a nuclear explosive material.

The suspects allegedly transported the material, estimated to be worth about $2.1 million, from Russia on a train, Bodrug said. He did not say if the suspects had arranged a sale, but police collected documents and computers during the raids that uncovered the materials.

Interpol and the FBI worked with Moldovan authorities to uncover the smuggling operation and apprehend the suspects.

In a Dec. 11 press release, Jeffrey Muller, a member of Interpol’s team dealing with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons-related issues, said the incident demonstrates the need for a “coordinated international approach” to prevent illicit trafficking of radioactive sources and nuclear materials across borders.

According to the Interpol statement, the seven individuals arrested are part of a criminal network that specializes in trafficking radioactive materials.

The International Atomic Energy Agency keeps a database to track incidents of illicit trafficking, theft, or misuse of radioactive and nuclear materials. According to the agency, states report more than 100 incidents a year to the database.

Six people were arrested in Moldova in 2011 for trying to sell one kilogram of weapons-usable uranium.


Subscribe to RSS - Fissile Material