Monday, June 08, 2009

The Nuclear Fuel Bank and Iran

800px-IAEA_flag Last week, President Obama said during his speech in Cairo that he wanted Iran to be able to pursue nuclear energy while not pursuing nuclear weaponry. The issues here are many, though using a nuclear plant as a stalking horse for building bombs isn’t really one of them. As we’ve noted before, Russia’s handling the fuel for the plant – which it built - under the auspices of the IAEA, so Iran has no viable options for mischief around Bushehr.

But where Iran may be fully foiled is in the creation of a fuel bank. And what is a fuel bank?

The basic idea is to have a relatively small, but guaranteed supply of low-enriched uranium available as a backup should a country's supplies of civilian nuclear fuel from other nations be cut off for political or other reasons. Of the dozen or so countries that now can enrich uranium, several - such as Brazil and South Africa - do so to guard against such disruptions, not to build nuclear weapons.

And this is the direction Obama wants to take:

As part of a new strategy to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, President Obama plans to seek the creation of the first-ever international supply of uranium that would allow nations to obtain fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but limit the capacity to make bombs, according to senior administration officials.

Why would this work, especially since Iran could retrieve uranium both licitly – through the bank – and illicitly – however?

"We want to give the Iranians an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful nuclear energy and serve as a new model," said a top administration official involved in crafting arms-control policy. "What we can do is create a system of incentives where, as a practical matter for countries that want nuclear power, the best way to obtain their fuel and to handle fuel services is through a new international architecture."

Okay, incentives, carrot no stick.

Iran's refusal to take advantage of the fuel bank "may give the US and other countries a stronger argument that Iran's program is really designed to give them a nuclear weapon potential," Kimball said.

This would be stick no carrot.

We should note that the bank isn’t a U.S. driven idea nor is its point only to paint Iran into a corner – the IAEA had already been working toward a bank for awhile. (See here, though, for IAEA’s page about Iran. Tons of information.)

That said, Iran’s activities have motivated a new push for the bank. (See here for more on that.) Russia and Kazakhstan have offered to host the bank (Kazakhstan signed a nuclear-free agreement with its neighbors recently, but got a waiver to host their bank; some sources say Russia is more likely to get it, but we’ll see) and the D.C. advocacy group Nuclear Threat Initiative has raised money from various countries (including the U.S.) to move forward with a bank under IAEA auspices. 

The article raises a good set of questions about the fuel bank – with some of the answers fully baked and the rest depending on further decision making. But with Obama throwing his hat in and vocally using the bank as to deter Iran’s weapons ambitions, the idea here may be to provide that country a way out of the world’s bad books. A lot to wait and see, but a start on boxing in Iran.

The IAEA logo. Not terribly exciting – the U.N. really likes that calming blue - but we’ve never featured it here.


hass said...


First of all MANY developing nations have consistently stated that their right to enrichment should not be restricted under the guise of non-proliferation so Iran is in good company. The Final Document of the United Nations General Assembly resolution S-10/2 which was adopted at the 27th plenary meeting of the tenth special session on 30 June 1978 stated in paragraph 69:

"Each country's choices and decisions in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel-cycle policies".

This language was reiterated in the final document of the 1980 NPT Review Conference and has been consistently reiterated in every Review Conference since then, including the 1995 Review Conference, the 2000 NPT Review Conference and in the Final Document of the 10th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2002.

Second, Iran has a legitimate concern about "fuel banks" being manipulated for political purposes, and has a strategic interest (not to mention a sovereign right) to develop its own nuclear industry.

Iran has already offered to place additional restrictions on its nuclear program -- beyond its legal obligations under the NPT -- that would address any LEGITIMATE concerns about weapons proliferation, ie by opening the program to multinational participation and enforcing a limit to enrichment. These offers have been ignored by the US. WHy? Because "nonproliferation" is just a pretext for the monopolization of nuclear fuel production: that's the real driving agenda.

Joffan said...

I agree with hass that Iran are being put under restrictions that are nothing to do with the international agreements reached on nuclear power, and many of its "objectionable" activities are in fact guaranteed by treaty. I'm not sure though that the purpose of this was anything to do with the fuel banks, but rather to punish Iran for ties to Hezbollah and (under Bush's "axis of evil" and "war on terror" concepts) to generate distracting external fears for the US populace to worry about. Unfortunately, once the process of diplomatic tension is started, it achieves its own momentum, and rational analysis will not be enough to stop it.

Pete said...

Does Iran's right to enrichment include doing business on the black market with AQ Kahn? Should it matter how a country obtains its nuclear technology with respect to its rights under the NPT? The Iranians can't expect everyone to believe their intentions now when they have been so dishonest in the past, and continue to be uncooperative with the IAEA, not to mention the UN security council.

hass said...

Had Iran's contracts with the IAEA's Technical Assistance Program and with Argentina and China and ... not been ILLEGALLY interfered with by the USA, then Iran would not have had to resort to going to Pakistan to obtain the technology that it was entitled to have.

hass said...

As far as being "cooperative with the IAEA" Iran has allowed all the inspections it is legally required to permit, and occasionally more, and had even suspended enrichment for 2 years and has signed the Additional PRotocol. The IAEA demands "transparency measures" from Iran that exceed not only Iran's safeguards agreement but also the Additional Protocol (which is not yet legally binding on Iran) --- no country would accept that, especially when its rights under the NPT are being denied.