Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Which Way Forward For Multilateral Approaches?

An International Expert Group Examines Options

by Bruno Pellaud

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For several years now, the debate on the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been dominated by individuals and countries that violate rules of good behaviour - as sellers or acquirers of clandestine nuclear technology. As a result, the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been declared to be "inadequate" by some, "full of loopholes" by others.

Two basic approaches have been put forward to tighten up the NPT; both seek to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime maintains its authority and credibility in the face of these very real challenges. One calls for non-nuclear weapon States to accept a partial denial of technology through a reinterpretation of the NPT's provisions governing the rights of access to nuclear technologies. The unwillingness of most non-nuclear-weapon States to accept additional restrictions under the NPT makes this approach difficult. The other approach would apply multinational alternatives to the national operation of uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation technologies, and to the disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

In this perspective, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei proposed in 2003 to revisit the concept of multilateral nuclear approaches (MNA) that was intensively discussed several decades ago. Several such approaches were adopted at that time in Europe, which became the true homeland of MNAs. Nonetheless, MNAs have failed so far to materialise outside Europe due to different political and economic perceptions.

International Expert Group

In June 2004, the Director General appointed an international group of experts to consider possible multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. The mandate of the Expert Group was three-fold:

  1. To identify and provide an analysis of issues and options relevant to multilateral approaches to the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle;

  2. To provide an overview of the policy, legal, security, economic, institutional and technological incentives and disincentives for cooperation in multilateral arrangements for the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle; and

  3. To provide a brief review of the historical and current experiences and analyses relating to multilateral fuel cycle arrangements relevant to the work of the Expert Group.

5 Suggested Multilateral Nuclear Approaches

The objective of increasing non-proliferation assurances concerning the civilian nuclear fuel cycles, while preserving assurances of supply and services around the world, could be achieved through a set of gradually introduced multilateral nuclear approaches (MNA):

  1. Reinforcing existing commercial market mechanisms on a case-by-case basis through long-term contracts and transparent suppliers' arrangements with government backing. Examples would be: commercial fuel banks, fuel leasing and fuel take-back and commercial offers to store and dispose of spent fuel.
  2. Developing and implementing international supply guarantees with IAEA participation. Different models should be investigated, notably the IAEA as guarantor, e.g. as administrator of a fuel bank.
  3. Promoting voluntary conversion of existing facilities to MNAs, and pursuing them as confidence-building measures, with the participation of NPT non-nuclear weapon States and nuclear weapon States, and non-NPT States.
  4. Creating, through voluntary agreements and contracts, multinational, and in particular regional, MNAs for new facilities based on joint ownership, drawing rights or co-management for front-end and back-end nuclear facilities, such as uranium enrichment; fuel reprocessing; disposal and storage of spent fuel (and combinations thereof). Integrated nuclear power parks would also serve this objective.
  5. The scenario of a further expansion of nuclear energy around the world might call for the development of a nuclear fuel cycle with strong multilateral arrangements - by region or by continent - and broader cooperation involving the IAEA and the international community.

The overall purpose was to assess MNAs in the framework of a double objective: strengthening the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and making the peaceful uses of nuclear energy more economical and attractive.

In the report submitted to the Director General in February 2005, the Group identified a number of options - options in terms of policy, institutional and legal factors - for those parts of the nuclear fuel cycle of greatest sensitivity from the point of view of proliferation risk. In this context, multilateral may mean regional, multinational or international (that is, with the participation of international organisations).

All multilateral arrangements so far have been discretionary, resulting from government-to-government agreements or commercial arrangements across borders. Today again, there could indeed be good reasons for encouraging such schemes on a voluntary basis.

First of all, MNAs are powerful confidence-building endeavours. By applying the general definition of "confidence-and-security-building measures" (CSBM) proposed by UNIDIR (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research), one could say that a nuclear fuel cycle CSBM would seek to introduce transparency and thereby predictability in relations between States by clarifying national intentions, reducing uncertainties about national activities, and/or constraining national opportunities for surprise. Such measures have been traditionally divided into three categories: "information and communication", "observation and inspection", and "reciprocally imposed constraints". In the nuclear fuel cycle, the IAEA has played an important intermediary function in the first two categories. In some cases - e.g. the Argentina-Brazil control arrangements and the Euratom Safeguards Office - regional verification has been put in place in addition to that of the IAEA. An MNA would fall under the category of "reciprocally imposed constraints", under which the participants would commit to carry out a given technology only within the MNA framework.

The first Indian test of a nuclear explosive device (ostensibly for peaceful purposes) occurred in 1974. The resulting concern led to a number of proposals for regional, multilateral and international arrangements. The proposals were intended, on the one hand, to reinforce the NPT objective of discouraging horizontal proliferation and, on the other hand, to buttress the right of all States to exploit nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Among the more visible efforts in the 1970s and 1980s were: the IAEA study on Regional Nuclear Fuel Cycle Centres (1975-77); the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation programme (INFCE,1977-80); the Expert Group on International Plutonium Storage (IPS, 1978-82); and the IAEA Committee on Assurances of Supply (CAS, 1980-87). These studies concluded that most of the proposed arrangements were technically feasible and that, based on the projections of energy demand, economies of scale rendered them economically attractive. All of these initiatives failed for a variety of political, technical and economic reasons.

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