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  • A Deeply Flawed Fuel Bank:Providing Nations with Enriched Uranium Will not Prevent Proliferation. It Will Promote It.
  • Amitai Etzioni (bio)

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There's a new and troubling idea afloat in the world of nuclear proliferation. To ensure that nations will not enrich uranium—a key element in nuclear bomb production—they will be provided with already-enriched uranium. Nations that already have significant enrichment capabilities, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, will provide the enriched uranium. To ensure the recipient nations are not dependent on the good will of any one nation, countries will contribute to an international nuclear fuel bank, regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] or some other, yet-to-be identified international entity, from which recipient nations could obtain enriched uranium. Call it a fallback bank. [End Page 103]

The uranium provided will be low-enriched, or LEU, usually defined as enriched to 20 percent or less of the fissile isotope uranium-235, which is used for energy-related purposes, rather than highly enriched uranium, HEU, usually defined as 90 percent enriched or more of uranium-235, which is used to make nuclear bombs. The fuel bank idea attempts to prevent recipient nations from further enriching the LEU to make bombs, forcing them to give up their enrichment capabilities and submit to inspections, preventing them from turning their LEU into HEU. In short, nations will be able to build nuclear reactors and use them for peaceful purposes without enriching uranium, and the world will rest assured that no nuclear proliferation is in the offing.

The plan sounds good, but as is often the case, a great distance separates the lip and the cup. Two significant flaws exist—one in its design and another in its implementation. Both pitfalls make it likely that outsourcing uranium enrichment will actually propel proliferation, rather than slow it.

Correcting a Flaw

Outsourcing enrichment corrects a gaping hole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]—a flaw that is acknowledged by long-time experts in nuclear security (my first books on the subject were published in 1962 and 1964). The treaty allows a nation to build nuclear facilities, including those needed to produce enriched uranium, as long as these facilities are used for non-military purposes. But the treaty also permits a recipient nation to give three months' notice to the other parties and the UN Security Council that it is opting out of the treaty—allowing it to take advantage of its fully developed nuclear facilities to manufacture bombs. This is exactly what North Korea did in 2003.

Given that there are 189 parties in the NPT, including countries such as Iran, Venezuela and Myanmar, reaching consensus on modifying the treaty is about as likely as getting all of the oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico to flow back into Deepwater Horizon's well. When the signatories do meet—once every five years—they have difficulty agreeing on something as simple as the agenda. Typically, their efforts produce very little.

Instead of vainly seeking to correct this detrimental flaw in the NPT, nuclear experts who lose sleep over these matters came up with the idea that if nations could be cajoled, enticed and pressured not to build uranium enrichment facilities themselves (and instead purchase enriched uranium from other nations) the NPT could work without correcting its core loophole. In this way, if a nation genuinely committed to not enriching uranium and to use its reactors merely for non-military purposes, it would have all the ready-made fuel it needed. If it strayed, the supply could be cut off. Moreover, if a nation quit the NPT, it would not have enrichment facilities. So far, so good.

The Substitution Effect

The fuel bank idea, which for years was the main subject of position papers and theoretical discussions among experts, was implemented in the United Arab Emirates in 2009. It is now being offered to other nations. In the process, [End Page 104] the fuel bank faces two major challenges that are almost never mentioned. The first concerns the used rods leftover in reactors after...


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pp. 103-110
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