A bank of low-enriched uranium designed to ensure fuel supplies for power stations and prevent nuclear proliferation will be set up in Kazakhstan.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed an agreement with the Central Asian company today to set up the storage facility in the north-eastern industrial city of Ust-Kamenogorsk at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has safely handled and stored nuclear material for more than 60 years.
The site is set to become fully operational in 2017, and is intended to provide IAEA member states with confidence in a steady and predictable supply of fuel, which advocates it as a way to dissuade countries from building enrichment facilities that can purify uranium to weapons-grade level.
The UN nuclear watchdog estimates it will cost $150m to stock the bank with LEU and run it for the first 10 years. The bank will contain up to 90 metric tons of LEU, enough to run a 1,000 MWe (megawatt electric) light-water reactor, which could power a large city for three years, it said.
"This IAEA fuel bank will enable and encourage peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while reducing the risks of proliferation and reducing the risks of catastrophic terrorism," former US Senator Sam Nunn said in a speech after the signing in the Kazakh capital Astana.
Nunn is co-chairman and chief executive officer of Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit aimed at assisting the fulfilment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's goals. One of NTI's supporters, US billionaire investor Warren Buffett, contributed $50m to "jumpstart" the project, Nunn added.
Under the terms of the agreement, signed by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano and Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov, the bank will be governed by Kazakhstan's laws but fully managed and operated by the IAEA.
The move is designed to counter the desires of nations such as Iran to develop their own enrichment capacities and Amano said that in line with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear programme, signed in July, the Islamic Republic might in the future offer part of its own LEU stocks for the bank.
The storage facility will be located not far from Semipalatinsk where the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal, the world's fourth-largest at the time.
The mineral-rich nation of is the world's largest uranium producer and holds more than 15 per cent of global uranium reserves, second only to Australia. It has no nuclear power stations of its own.