WASHINGTON -- Russia has signed a deal with the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to set up the world's first nuclear fuel bank of low-enriched uranium for countries that need fuel for civilian purposes, including nuclear power plants.
Russia's atomic energy chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, signed the deal with IAEA head Yukiya Amano in Vienna on March 29. The IAEA says the bank will eventually hold a stockpile of 120 tons of low-enriched uranium.
Kiriyenko, who heads Russia's state-owned nuclear company Rosatom, said the bank will be located in the southern Siberian city of Angarsk. Russia and Kazakhstan have had a uranium enrichment facility there since 2007.
He predicted that nearly a third of the total uranium stockpile should be ready to sell by the end of the year.
But he stressed that the bank's reserves are meant to be used only in cases of urgent need and to avoid interruptions in a country's supply.
The Russian deal was approved by the IAEA last November and is the result of years of planning to establish a reliable source of low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear programs in countries with a perfect non-proliferation record.
Under the agreement, countries will formally request nuclear fuel from the IAEA, which will then transfer the request to Russia. Russia will cover the costs involved in setting up the bank.
Corey Hinderstein, of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, took part in consultations with the IAEA on the fuel bank initiative and says most of the countries where civilian nuclear energy is expanding are "for economic, political, and technological reasons...not likely to want to rely on indigenous fuel cycle facilities to be able to supply their nuclear energy programs, and they'll want to rely on the international markets."
The creation of an international nuclear fuel bank, an idea strongly backed by the United States, was also meant to give Iran an opportunity to change its course. The international community suspects Iran is trying to build atomic weapons, a claim that Tehran denies.
But Richard Weitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says the creation of the bank comes too late to influence Iran's nuclear program.
"The hope was that the Russia or some other countries would develop this fuel bank and that, in particular, Iran would rely on it rather than develop its own enrichment capabilities," Weitz said. "But that's not going to happen. That was a few years ago. But it's still thought that this could prove useful, perhaps, in other cases -- for example, [regarding] some of Iran's neighbors that are looking at a nuclear program."
The IAEA says the bank is a way to meet demand from some 60 nations for technical help in launching peaceful atomic energy programs without increasing the risk of proliferation.
Russia has its own stake in hosting the fuel bank. Since becoming prime minister in May 2008, Vladimir Putin has made strengthening Russia's nuclear power sector a top economic priority.
During a visit to India earlier this month, Putin signed multi-billion-dollar deals to build up to 16 nuclear reactors, and said Russia hopes to eventually control a quarter of the global nuclear power market.