Russia and Kazakhstan are poised to sign an agreement creating a joint uranium-enrichment center, a possible first step toward an international nuclear fuel “bank” that could remove the need for countries such as Iran to pursue their own enrichment programs, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin said yesterday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign an agreement to create the enrichment center in the Siberian city of Angarsk on a visit to Kazakhstan beginning today, Mr. Tazhin said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
Known for its huge oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is also the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, and is expected to surpass market leader Australia in the next few years.
“Today it is just a bilateral arrangement, but it could be open to any country that wants to use the mechanism,” Mr. Tazhin said.
He said the project was just getting under way and it would be up to Iran or any other nation to decide whether they want to participate.
“It is difficult right now to say who might want to join,” he said.
Nonproliferation specialists have pushed the idea of a nuclear fuel bank as a way to discourage countries from developing their own domestic uranium-enrichment programs.
The Bush administration has led an international drive to block Iran’s enrichment program, claiming it is secretly being used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
The U.S. Department of Energy last year initiated the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a key part of which offered countries that renounced nuclear fuel-cycle activities access to U.S. nuclear fuel for civilian power needs.
At about the same time, Mr. Putin floated the idea of a network of international nuclear fuel-cycle centers, which Russian officials said could be used by developing countries seeking nuclear power.
The Angarsk site would be the first center in the network. Russian officials argue their plan could be implemented much more quickly than the American alternative.
A U.S. official familiar with the nuclear-bank debate said the Bush administration was “largely neutral” on the Russia-Kazakhstan plan. Both countries are members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which has strict standards designed to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.
“Obviously, we would expect both countries to abide by the rules they have agreed to,” the official said.
Iran insists its nuclear programs are for peaceful civilian use and has resisted intense international pressure to give up its enrichment programs.
Gholamreza Aghazadeh, Iran’s representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, told an IAEA meeting last fall the fuel-cycle bank could lead to a cartel of suppliers who could deprive non-nuclear countries of their rights.
“The developed countries are seeking to create a monopoly,” he warned.
Mr. Tazhin said Kazakhstan, which gave up the nuclear arsenal it inherited following the breakup of the Soviet Union, has “made no secret” of its participation with Moscow on the fuel-cycle center and not gotten any negative signals from Washington about its plans.
“We understand it will not solve all the world’s problems in this area. But it can be done quickly, it is practical, and we can quickly see the results and consequences,” he said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, which tracks nonproliferation issues, said the Russia-Kazakhstan venture is just one of a dozen ideas being floated to address the basic dilemma: controlling the enrichment process without denying states the right to nuclear power.
“It’s attractive to the Russians because they can control it and because it’s in an industry where they very much want foreign investment,” he said.
But, he said, it was still very much in doubt whether the fuel-cycle bank idea will be able to resolve the “difficult cases” like Iran.
“We have to understand the limitations of these ideas,” Mr. Kimball said. “No amount of fuel supply assurances are likely to satisfy countries like Iran, because fundamentally they want to preserve at least the option of enrichment for their own purposes.”
IAEA member nations are set to meet this summer in Vienna to discuss the various fuel-bank ideas.