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IAEA to create nuclear fuel bank

The New York Times reports:

Spurred by a pledge of $50 million from Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted Friday to set up a global nuclear fuel bank that aspiring nations can turn to for reactor fuel instead of making it themselves.

he goal is to reduce the risks of weapons proliferation by providing an alternative to the production of nuclear fuel, which countries can use to power either bombs or reactors. The built-in ambiguity explains the world’s jitters over plants in Iran and North Korea for purifying uranium.The new bank is seen as creating a global mechanism to aid the lighting of cities and to hinder the means of destroying them.

“I’ve never been $50 million lighter and felt better,” Mr. Buffett said in an interview on Friday. He called the fuel bank an investment in a safer world.

“The spread of weapons of incredible destructive capability is the No. 1 problem facing mankind,” he said. The bank, Mr. Buffett added, promised to get at least “part of the genie back in the bottle.”

Since the nuclear age began, the globalization of atomic production has been much discussed, but never attempted. The vote on the bank — taken in Vienna by the 35 countries that make up the board of the atomic energy agency, an arm of the United Nations — comes as dozens of developing countries have expressed interest in nuclear power.

“This is a breakthrough in global cooperation,” said Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group in Washington that backed the bank’s creation and solicited the $50 million donation from Mr. Buffett to help get it started.

Mr. Nunn said the bank would “enable peaceful uses of nuclear energy while reducing the risks of proliferation and catastrophic terrorism.”

When enriched to low levels, uranium can fuel reactors. But the highly enriched variety is one of the two main fuels of atomic bombs. Nonproliferation experts like to see uranium turned into fuel rods for nuclear reactors as soon as possible, because it is difficult to remanufacture the rods into weapons.

Mr. Buffett made his $50 million offer in late 2006. His pledge was contingent on the atomic agency’s establishing the fuel bank and one or more countries’ contributing $100 million — or the equivalent in reactor fuel.

The financial goal was met in March 2009 when Kuwait donated $10 million. The other backers are the United States, the European Union, Norway and the United Arab Emirates. The contributions now total $157 million.

Nuclear experts say the money will buy up to 80 tons of fuel — enough for refueling one reactor. The location of the bank has yet to be determined, as well as the exact means of its replenishment and expansion.

In recent years, the idea of atomic fuel banks has been much discussed, and Russia just set up one, which the atomic agency is going to help administer. But the Russian one is not a true global institution, and experts see the agency’s own bank as offering more reassurance to skittish nations.

While a commercial market exists for the sale of reactor fuel, some potential buyers may see the supplies as potentially subject to political disputes and manipulation and thus may become interested in producing their own. The global bank, nuclear experts say, has the potential to diminish that rationale.

“It may encourage smaller countries to not engage in enrichment because they’ll see the bank as a form of security,” said Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington. “But it’s not going to solve Iran or other big issues of nuclear proliferation.”

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.