German multilateral enrichment project up for discussion

19 February 2008

A German proposal for a multilateral uranium enrichment centre to be established on neutral territory is under discussion at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The proposal is one of several seeking to assure countries of secure supplies of nuclear fuel at the same time as strengthening the non-proliferation regime.


IAEA Media 
Media attention at the IAEA
(Image: IAEA/Dean Calma)

Germany’s proposal, the Multilateral Enrichment Sanctuary Project (MESP), calls for the construction of an IAEA-supervised uranium enrichment plant on international property that would be donated by a host country.


The IAEA would be given sovereign rights over the land occupied by the facility, while the plant would be commercially operated by a private firm. The IAEA would be able to control the export of low-enriched uranium from the site but the commercial company would retain privileges on the construction, operation and management of the enrichment plant. Controls would be put in place to ensure the plant would not enjoy any unfair competitive advantages over other commercial enrichment suppliers on the world market. The IAEA would retain control of a buffer fuel stock to enable it to ensure a secure supply of nuclear fuel should a state encounter the blockage of its fuel supply for political or economic reasons.


The plan seeks to diversify control over global enrichment capacity, and recommends that the enrichment centre be based in a country that does not already have enrichment plants – ruling out France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the UK and the USA. The host country would also need to have reliable infrastructure, good accessibility including access to sea ports for shipping, political stability and excellent credentials regarding nuclear safeguards agreements and the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 1968 international treaty aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons.


Speaking in advance of his presentation to the IAEA, Ambassador Peter Gottwald said: “Germany respects the right of every country to decide on its own energy mix, including nuclear energy. We respect the inalienable right of every country to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, yet at the same time we all share a clear interest in minimizing possible proliferation risks emanating from the predicted wider use of nuclear power for civil purposes.”


Mutually assured supply


The rationale behind the proposal is to ensure countries a secure supply of fuel for their nuclear power stations while lessening the incentive to set up domestic uranium enrichment programs. Enrichment is a vital step in the manufacture of the low-enriched uranium fuel used in nuclear power reactors, but enrichment technology can also be used to produce highly-enriched uranium suitable for use in nuclear weapons, and is therefore seen as a nuclear proliferation risk. Plans for mutually assured nuclear fuel supply have been under consideration for many years. In 2004 the IAEA set up an international group of experts to consider possible multilateral approaches to the civil nuclear fuel cycle, and the German proposal was first submitted to the IAEA in May 2007.


The German proposal is not the only one under consideration by the IAEA. Perhaps the most widely known proposals are those from Russia and the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) organization. Russia is in the process of setting up an International Uranium Enrichment Centre at an existing enrichment plant at Angarsk in Siberia, to which Kazakhstan and Armenia have already signed up. Meanwhile the NTI has proposed the setting up of an international nuclear fuel bank for which $100 million has already been earmarked by the NTI itself and the US Congress.


Other proposals on the table include a Japanese suggestion of an IAEA-maintained registry of participating states and their nuclear supply capacity that could provide supply assurance in the event of market failure. An industry perspective was provided by World Nuclear Association working group in a report, Ensuring Security of Supply in the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which was submitted to the IAEA in 2006.

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