Russia’s World Bank for Uranium

by Joshua Foust on 11/5/2007

In May, we discussed the creation of a sort-of World Bank for Uranium, a joint Russian-Kazakh affair to enrich and store a supply of Uranium so that new regimes will not have to build their own potentially worrisome enrichment facilities. It seemed like a good idea at the time—by providing a way to purchase uranium for power generation but not weapons production, yet another diplomatic pillar of the so-called “rogue nuclear nations” (Iran and North Korea, for the moment) has been kicked out from beneath them—and it remains a good idea.

Moscow, Oct. 30: Russia will grant any country in the world the use of an international uranium enrichment centre currently being constructed in east Siberia, Russia’s permanent ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin has said.

The centre, part of a non-proliferation initiative to create a network of enrichment centres here under the UN nuclear watchdog IAEA’s supervision, will be based at a chemical plant in Angarsk. It will also be responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste.

“The centre, co-founded by Russia and Kazakhstan, will be open to third countries without any political preconditions,” RIA Novosti news agency quoted Mr. Churkin as saying.

The bank, however, is only as good as the regulations behind it. And it is here that a rather contradictory picture emerges:

[Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei] Ivanov also said fuel for nuclear power plants was a market product and any country represented in the IAEA that was also signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had the right to buy it.

‘But this is only in theory. Due to a variety of political reasons, a country may be denied access to uranium,” he said.

So it’s free for all, but they reserve the right to block whomever they choose. Got it.

Of course, the U.S. can’t make up its mind on the subject. I couldn’t find an update on Nathan’s excellent reporting of the silly opposition to KazAtomProm’s purchase of a minority stake in Westinghouse, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. does not have contradictory and counterproductive policies in place anyway:

Since 1992, a “megatons to megawatts” program with the U.S. government and the U.S. Enrichment Corp. (USEC) has allowed for the down-blending of former Russian weapons-grade uranium to supply about half the fuel needed for U.S. reactors. However, the “suspension agreement” was put in place after the U.S. Commerce Department found the former Soviet Union to be dumping low-enriched uranium (LEU) in the U.S. market. Other Russian nuclear imports have been subject to prohibitive 112% duties.

So we’re all about Russia selling its nuclear materials to improve the internal and foreign security situation… so long as they don’t do it at a lower price (almost all U.S. complaints about “dumping” are really complaints about other countries enjoying a comparative or absolute advantage). That being said, moving forward with the bank is still a smart idea, if only for its larger geopolitical ambitions. It might actually represent a decent solution to Iran that avoids brash officials lobbing bombs.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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