Two nuclear fuel banks are needed – one in Russia’s sphere of influence and another in the West. Is Saskatchewan it?
When President Barak Obama made a proposal in Prague on April 5 to establish an international nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan, what he was talking about was putting non-commercial uranium enrichment production under international control at one site. As you read this blog post pay attention to the remarkable convergence of distant events around the date of the Presidents's speech.
Although Obama's idea is a remarkable vision to control the spread of nuclear technologies, it isn’t likely to happen right away because nations do not trust each other enough to allow a single facility to control production of U235 enriched to 3-5% for commercial nuclear reactors. It is too tempting a target for political interference.
The only way the idea will work, at least outside of current commercial production, is if there is a second international center in the West’s sphere of influence matching the concept for one on Russia’s southern border. An ideal candidate is the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, which like Kazakhstan, has huge reserves of uranium and an robust mining industry exporting yellowcake to work markets.
In March 2008 Saskatchewan’s Provincial Premiere Brad Wall (right) said he’d like his neck of the woods in Canada, which produces up to one-third of the world’s uranium, to move up the value chain to do more than just export yellowcake. What Wall told G8 ministers is that Canada wants to get into the uranium enrichment business.
At the time Wall said "We're the Saudi Arabia of uranium. It is in our mutual interest for Canada to become a reliable supplier of uranium fuel”
Blue-ribbon committee recommends enrichment services
At the same time President Obama was making his pitch for an international fuel bank, a blue ribbon commission working in Saskatchewan released a report on April 3, 2009, that calls for development of a “laser enrichment facility.”
Interestingly, where this ties in to the uranium industry there is that in June 2008 Cameco (TSE:CCO), a major Canadian mining firm, invested $125 million in General Electric’s laser enrichment project now coming off the R&D bench in Wilmington, NC. G.E. is currently developing a test loop for the process and has told industry analysts it expects to build commercial facility in 2012.
The report by a panel appointed by the visionary Mr. Wall, called the Uranium Development Partnership, also recommended a deal with neighboring Alberta to build nuclear reactors to supply power to both provinces.
There is no indication for now that Mr. Wall’s ambitions include service as an international fuel bank, but it is a hugely intriguing idea.
See also prior coverage on this blog: Canada Drives G8 Enrichment Shift
The world divided in two parts
What make’s Saskatchewan’s ambitions interesting is that if they were to come to fruition, the province would be an ideal location for an international fuel bank in a western sphere of influence. It would match the concept of a fuel bank located in in Kazakhstan which is undeniably in Russia’s sphere of influence. Countries interested in “reliable fuel services” could take their pick of where to buy nuclear fuel.
Geography aside, a second international fuel bank in Canada would also be politically viable because the country is a stable democracy with no history of building or deploying nuclear weapons. It is clearly in the western sphere of influence.
How the fuel bank works
The concept of a nuclear fuel bank has been kicking around since September 2006 when the IAEA called a conference to talk about it.
A nuclear "fuel bank" - where the IAEA administers a nuclear fuel reserve - is a nuclear fuel reserve that would assure a supply for power reactors throughout the world on a non-discriminatory, non-political basis reducing the need for countries to develop their own uranium enrichment technologies.
Most government and industry experts agree that the commercial fuel market functions well in meeting current demand. Since this would be a back-up or reserve mechanism, it would be designed inherently in a way not to disrupt the existing commercial market in nuclear fuels.
"I want to make sure that every country that is a bona fide user of nuclear energy, and that is fulfilling its non-proliferation obligations, is getting fuel," said IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. "It is not asking any State to give up its rights under NPT."
Would Iran play and give up home-grown enrichment services?
Reuters reported April 6 that in response to Obama's speech Kazakhstan has offered to host a global nuclear fuel bank, part of a U.S.-backed plan to put all uranium enrichment under international control. The Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama is giving serious consideration to the idea. Political junkies will note the remarkable coincidence in time of the President’s speech and Kazakhstan’s offer.
Significantly, who should be visiting the country at the very same time was none other than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right) who told Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev he could consider the idea.
Creating such a repository accessible to Iran could serve as an important step in U.S.-Iran relations at a time when Obama is pushing for a "new beginning" in their ties after decades of mistrust. The Mullahs who rule Iran are not stupid even if some of the speeches made by Ahmadinejad are clearly wing-nut class. Somebody in Teheran is paying attention or Iran’s president wouldn’t have been where he was on April 5th.
More resources on nuclear fuel banks
Ok, so who would pay to set up a nuclear fuel bank? Uranium isn’t cheap especially when you are talking about the first load for a new reactor. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which as raised $150 million to fund an international nuclear fuel bank administered by the IAEA , has several web pages with more information.
The subject is much more complex than can be covered in a blog post so check it out. See especially this comparative table which describes the major ideas associated with organizing nuclear fuel banks.
Would you lie to me?
Of course betrayal, lies, and mistrust have poisoned the Iranian U.S. relationship for decades and it is unlikely that a single speech, or two nuclear fuel banks, will resolve the differences between the two countries soon. For this reason, I’m offering the bang up music video from the Eurythmics “Would you lie to me?” as a closing chord to this blog post. Best seen with IE7.