World’s First IAEA Owned Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan
Oskemen (Kazakhstan): Nine hundred kilometers away from the Capital Astana, Oskemen is the administrative centre of east of Kazakhstan. Once an industrial hub and key town in erstwhile Soviet Union’s nuclear programme – now makes a mark on the world map for nuclear non proliferation diplomacy. The city now has a first of its kind of bank. On August 29th, 2017 a new chapter is added on civil use of nuclear energy with the opening of IAEA-LEU Uranium Bank in Oskemen.
The unique bank owned and controlled by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) will have a physical stock up to 90 metric tons of low enriched uranium in 60 cylinders which can be fabricated to fuel light water reactors – the most common reactor in nuclear power plants worldwide.
This inventory can be lifeline for IAEA member states which are yet to develop uranium enrichment technologies to fuel their reactors and for those consumer countries supplies whose fuel supplies are disrupted.
The Long Journey: It’s a decade long journey to set up an IAEA LEU Bank in Kazakhstan. In 2006 Nuclear Threat Initiate (NTI) coined the idea to establish such a bank to fulfill fuel requirement of IAEA member states. Kazakhstan after becoming independent state in 1991 after the collapse of Soviet Union renounced the fourth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons it inherited. One of the first tasks President Nursultan Nazarbayev undertook soon after assuming power was to close Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site on 29th August, 1991 – the first guarantee and milestone to play a bigger role in nuclear non proliferation.
In 2009 it was first announced by the President himself that Kazakhstan would host the IAEA bank. But the wheel started moving fast in 2011 when IAEA laid down the criteria for setting up the bank and Kazakhstan promptly offered two possible locations, Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Ulba Metallurgical Plant at Oskemen. After IAEA’s technical review the site at Oskemen won the race where the bank was formally inaugurated on 29th August. But not before a long drawn diplomacy and signing of series of agreements to ensure supply to the nuclear warehouse, transportation and safeguards to mitigate the risk of further nuclear weapon proliferation.
The establishment and running cost of the bank for 10 years is 150 million US dollars and the entire fund is raised by the consortium of seven IAEA members and partners including EU, Kazakhstan, Norway and Nuclear Threat Initiative etc.
The Significance: At the time when the work is sitting on stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and the treat of the nuclear conflict looms large – the IAEA LEU Bank is a path breaking initiative which serves two objectives at the same time. It is designed to put speed breaker on nuclear proliferation by ensuring low grade uranium supply to reactors worldwide and thus may dissuade many nations to not to opt for setting up their own uranium enrichment facilities. The other challenge it will help meet is the threat of climate change. Opting out burning of fossil fuel for energy requirement is now the pressing need before the world. It is beyond doubt that renewable provides the better answer for a sustaining world as many issues like safety, nuclear waste and access to technology are to be addressed fully yet nuclear power is one of the options to meet the climate change challenge. IAEA LEU Bank in Kazakhstan may not put a full stop to the arms race but it is certainly a way forward for strengthening the nuclear non proliferation.
*Sr Journalist and Expert Energy Affairs