The global uranium fuel bank was back in the news last week when developing nations on the IAEA Board angrily stalled discussions. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei faced widespread discontent when he requested that a detailed plan for a fuel bank be submitted by September 2009.
Delegations from developing nations said that they would not support any measures that could “endanger their inalienable and sovereign right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle.” They also objected to “attempts meant to discourage the pursuit of any peaceful nuclear technology on grounds of its alleged ‘sensitivity’.” India, a non-party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, reportedly led the charge against the proposal…
IAEA officials claim that talks have not stopped completely, but it will take much more time and political will to get the fuel bank project off the ground. The outcome of Iran’s presidential elections and the appointment of a new IAEA Director General are also complicating factors.
The idea for an independently monitored international fuel bank has been around since President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech. It has sparked interest in recent years due to fears that Iran’s enrichment program will lead to an arms-race in the Middle East. The two most promising proposals today come from the DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and Russia. NTI, backed by billionaire Warren Buffet, pledged $50 million for the effort, and Russia has offered to host the IAEA-administered bank at its Angarsk enrichment facility.
In 2006, former Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Dick Lugar wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling for a “new international non-proliferation standard that prevents countries from using the guise of nuclear energy to develop nuclear weapons.” In 2007, then Senator Barack Obama introduced the International Nuclear Fuel for Peace and Non-Proliferation Act of 2007, which supported the fuel bank effort and would have authorized $50 million for the project. The most important fuel bank endorsement came in Obama’s April 5 speech in Prague.
Considering this enthusiasm at the highest levels of the U.S. government, why have so many U.S. legislators been silent about the non-proliferation regime since April? The answer to this question, quite simply, is Iran.
America’s Iran agenda bears heavily on the survival of the fuel bank initiative. Iran’s progress on its enrichment program has stirred fears among other states in the Middle East, who have since voiced desire for help in developing their own civilian nuclear technology regimes. Despite this pressure, President Obama has been careful not to sacrifice the fuel bank initiative. He acknowledged Iran’s “right to access peaceful nuclear power” and said that while it has “legitimate energy concerns, legitimate aspirations…the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in the region.”
The fuel bank initiative might not be dead, but it is certainly in critical condition. Now we must wait until the dust settles in the streets of Tehran before taking the next step forward.