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A Step Toward a Safer Atom
My country is host to an important new initiative that could change how the world talks about nuclear enrichment forever.
Last week, the international community gathered in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana to sign an historic agreement that will provide an important new tool for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) efforts to promote safe and secure development of nuclear energy and prevent the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies. Working with partners throughout the world, Kazakhstan is hosting the world’s first international low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank under the IAEA auspices.
This is crucial step toward a more peaceful and prosperous world and Kazakhstan is uniquely well positioned to host this important project.
First envisioned by President Dwight Eisenhower 50 years ago to contain the spread of weapons technology, the fuel bank is today getting a new meaning. It will maintain a reliable supply of LEU that can be provided to any country that loses, for political or commercial reasons, access to the global uranium market for fueling nuclear power plants. In other words, the LEU bank will act as the supplier of last resort.
With the bank in place, each country will know that the IAEA will make nuclear fuel available for its power plants under standard commercial terms and with oversight provided by a respected neutral party. Though Kazakhstan will build and host the LEU bank, the IAEA will control its operations and set the conditions under which fuel is provided to a third party.
The LEU bank will allow countries around the world to pursue their legitimate rights to develop peaceful nuclear energy under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Although creating and making use of a full nuclear fuel cycle is a sovereign decision of any state, the LEU bank creates an opportunity to develop nuclear energy without having to rely on individual enrichment programs. This will allow states using nuclear power plants to avoid significant costs. It will also limit the risk that nuclear technology is converted to military purposes.
The fewer sources of highly enriched uranium in the world, the fewer the risks of their use for military purposes.
The agreement in Astana comes at a time when the future of world energy is being determined. On the one hand, in the majority of states, especially in the developing world, there is a growing demand for energy to support economic growth and improve living standards. On the other hand, concerns about climate change and carbon emissions demand new approaches to energy.
Only atomic energy can address both concerns, which is why its use will rapidly expand in the near future. Already, hundreds of nuclear power plants are in the construction or planning phases worldwide.
The rapid expansion in nuclear energy, however, brings along proliferation risks. The LEU bank will be a significant part of the solution to this challenge. Yet more work is needed to create new international institutions to ensure transparency in the nuclear fuel market and control over nuclear materials.
The establishment of LEU bank serves as a proof that cooperation by many new participants can bring tangible results. The movement for the LEU bank was begun by American investor Warren Buffett and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, co-chaired by former Sen. Sam Nunn and businessman Ted Turner. They were joined by the governments of Norway, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, the European Union, and the United States. Together, we have made an important contribution to nuclear security.
For Kazakhstan, creating and hosting the LEU bank has special significance. When we achieved independence in 1991, we found ourselves possessing the world’s fourth-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. We moved immediately to renounce these weapons and arranged for their secure transfer to the Russian Federation, in cooperation with the United States.
Kazakhstan had good reason for this. No people has suffered more during peacetime from the terrible impact of nuclear weapons than our own. In the Soviet era, our land experienced nearly 500 nuclear explosions in the air and underground. More than 1.5 million people were affected by nuclear fallout and large areas of the country were left contaminated. Even though Kazakhstan shut down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in 1991, we still struggle with the legacy of these weapons programs.
That is why we are resolved to continue working on nuclear security in Kazakhstan, in the region and globally. It is fitting, therefore, that the site for the LEU bank will be the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Kazakhstan. This facility was once committed to weapons development. Now the technology at Ulba and the expertise of the men and women who work there will be applied to peace and security.
We see a future for nuclear energy technology that improves the well-being of people throughout the world, not one that creates the risk of violent confrontation.
Image credit: Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images