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    Central Asia
     Sep 7, 2012


Nuclear fuel bank or nuclear graveyard?
By Zhulduz Baizakova

Kazakhstan plans to build an international nuclear fuel bank in Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen), in the country's east, at the site of Ulba Metallurgic Plant, part of the giant national company Kazatomprom, which produces fuel tablets for nuclear power plants.

While the authorities are keen on the plan, some citizens are seriously questioning it - questions that are likely to remain largely unanswered.

The nuclear fuel bank will store low-enriched uranium for the fuel assemblies of nuclear power plants under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). LEU is a special fissionable material containing a concentration of uranium-235 of less than 20%.

In March 2010, Russia introduced the first LEU reserve (to store

 

120 tonnes) for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk, southeastern Siberia. The terms and conditions were the same as being currently negotiated with Kazakhstan: The host country provides the storage facility and funds the maintenance, physical security and safeguards.

Kazakhstan offered to store LEU in 2009-2010 and met the three main criteria: The country is politically neutral; it abides by the nuclear non-proliferation regime; and it is able to supply LEU to any country that meets the non-proliferation requirements. The LEU would remain legally under the control of the IAEA and be supplied at free-market prices.

IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said: "The LEU reserve would be made available for backup supply to any eligible IAEA member state that might face a non-commercial disruption of supply of LEU to be used in nuclear fuel for power reactors, thereby facilitating the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

Today Kazakhstan is a top uranium producer, shifting from fifth in the world in 2003 to second place in 2008.

According to the head of Kazatomprom, Vladimir Shkolnik, the IAEA approved the Ulba Plant since "it has more than 50 years of experience in working with and storing nuclear materials in uranium-hexafluoride form".

The Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the Host Country Agreement is due to be signed by the end of this year, after the IAEA board of governors meeting. Physical construction will begin in mid-2013.

The IAEA and its donors have pledged US$150 million for the project.

The host country must meet the general requirements and guidelines of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and be open for IAEA inspections.

The head of the Kazakh Agency for Atomic Energy, Timur Zhantikin, said: "There will be certain restricted areas provided for nuclear-fuel storage inside the Ulba Plant itself with relevant signs posted."

He also stressed that this was a political project for Kazakhstan aimed at strengthening the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and that the fuel would be officially kept under IAEA control. The plant itself will need only "a slight amount of modernization, as it has all the required infrastructure and qualified personnel", Zhantikin added.

Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Umarov noted that Kazakhstan had a good reputation in terms of abiding by the non-proliferation rules and also has clear and comprehensive legislation in the field of export of nuclear and dual-use materials. Hosting the fuel bank would spur new development of nuclear-energy production and enhance the country's scientific and technical framework.

Kazakhstan has quite a credible list of achievements in its non-proliferation activity, such as closing the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk (Polygon) Test Site and voluntarily renouncing the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

Increasingly, state officials claim that this project entails no threat whatsoever to the country, and that it will not create any waste such as spent nuclear fuel, as some citizens fear. The possibility of a terrorist threat has also been dismissed by arguing that LEU is of no interest to terrorists.

The director of the Institute of High Technologies, Serik Kozhakhmetov, goes as far as equating Kazakhstan with Switzerland in the field of nuclear energy. Both the former and current US ambassadors to Kazakhstan, John Ordway and Kenneth Fairfax, support the idea of locating the nuclear-fuel bank in this country.

However, the general population remains confused as to what purpose the fuel bank might serve in Kazakhstan, as many understand that there is little if any economic benefit to be gained.
Some locals demand that before making the crucial decision on physically building the facilities for the bank, the population should be consulted and everything explained. Some are worried that there is very little economic benefit to be realized from hosting the bank. Others cannot help suspecting that under the guise of low-enriched uranium, the plant will host real nuclear waste and damage the fragile environment of East Kazakhstan province even further.

Some believe that by providing the territory for hosting the bank, President Nursultan Nazarbayev received some sort of "indulgence for his mischief" from the great powers and that now, Kazakhstan's security will be guarded ever more closely.

Communists in Ust-Kamenogorsk think the bank would be environmentally dangerous. Mielz Eleusizov, leader of the Tabigat Ecological Union, suspects that it will turn out to be a disguised storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

However, experts claim that LEU is not radioactive and does not present any environmental threat to the population. "There would be the same radioactivity as in any of our other uranium-producing regions, from Aktau to Stepnogorsk," Shkolnik said.

Kairat Kadyrzhanov, director of the National Nuclear Center, says hosting the bank will significantly increase the country's status internationally.

Sergey Lukashenko, director of the Institute for Radiation Security and Ecology, says that since Kazakhstan has no conflict with any other state, those countries seeking to acquire nuclear fuel would face no political implications.

However, it is precisely the political friendliness of Kazakhstan that disturbs some international experts. Richard Weitz, an analyst for the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think-tank, feels "uneasy about Kazakhstan's proximity to and friendly relations with Iran".

However, the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty, of which Kazakhstan is a signatory, explicitly states that no party can provide special fissionable material to "any non-nuclear-weapon state, unless that state has concluded with the I??? ? comprehensive safeguards agreement and its Additional Protocol". Legally, Kazakhstan or any other Central Asian state cannot deal with Iran on any nuclear activities, which would appear to make certain concerns about the fuel bank unnecessary and groundless. (Iran signed the Additional Protocol in 2003 and worked with IAEA inspectors in 2003 and 2005, but the protocol is still not in force.)

The anxieties of the local population can be interpreted from the context of general ignorance, lack of a relevant information campaign on the part of authorities, and possibly slight hysteria on the part of green movements. However, the major obstacle is constant reference to the tragic past of the former Soviet republic being used as a nuclear test site and the environmental and health implications that entailed. Perhaps the population would be more eager to welcome the initiative if the authorities started an appropriate campaign to explain why the nuclear fuel bank is needed in the first place and what purposes it may serve.

Another reason for skepticism is that many experts as well as officials openly question the feasibility of the nuclear fuel bank, referring to the lack of economic benefits.

The possibility that an open public debate will be held is next to zero. It is clear, however, from official statements that the authorities will attempt to use the initiative as another propaganda tool to advance the country's image worldwide.

The national argument around the construction of the nuclear fuel bank is bound to continue, with questions from the general population remaining.





Get nuclear option off the table
(Aug 28, '12)

Nazarbayev's free-trade goal offers Central Asia a future (Apr 26, '12)


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