With growing energy needs, rising oil prices, and mounting concerns over climate change, there is renewed interest in expanding the use of nuclear power both in the United States and around the world. Nuclear energy can have an important role in addressing current and future energy needs, but if the expansion of nuclear energy is not managed properly it could result in the spread of nuclear weapons technology to dozens of countries around the world.
The nuclear proliferation risk arises because the same technology used to enrich uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants can also be employed to enrich uranium to make a nuclear bomb. While the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows countries that have met their nonproliferation obligations to have enrichment technology, it will be a much more dangerous world if the means to make nuclear weapons materials is spread to dozens of countries. Thus, the challenge is to meet growing energy needs without increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation and catastrophic nuclear terrorism.
To address this dilemma, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has challenged the international community to create multi-layered backup fuel supplies so countries can have the confidence that they will have uninterrupted supplies of fuel in case of market disturbances or disagreements with their fuel suppliers. Among the options being pursued are internationally controlled back-up fuel supplies, nationally held strategic stockpiles, multinational fuel centers, and control over fuel cycle facilities, fuel banks and leasing arrangements, and private sector insurance programs that could address fuel supply interruptions. By creatively integrating technical, commercial, and diplomatic solutions, the IAEA, and others—including government leaders from Asia, Europe, Russia, and the United States, World Nuclear Association, and the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative—are exploring new international fuel assurance initiatives strong enough to withstand potential supply disruptions.
A successful framework for international fuel assurances must provide credible commitments to uphold commercial contracts for nuclear supply, irrespective of changing economic, political, and strategic relations. The issue of reliability raises many technical and policy questions. What needs to be added to market mechanisms to provide sufficient assurance of supply to deter a costly turn to national-level fuel cycle facilities? Are new technologies blurring lines between the illicit and legitimate use of sensitive nuclear technology, or are there viable proliferation-resistant technologies on the horizon? How might the latter be reinforced by renewed safeguards obligations, without jeopardizing the tenuous balance between the rights of nuclear weapons “haves” and “have-nots”? What conditions are necessary for potential customers to buy into an international fuel assurances program? Finally, what lessons from the long and diverse record of nuclear nonproliferation, including previous attempts at internationalizing nuclear fuel supply, can be applied to ensure reliable fuel cycle services?
Panel experts will discuss—from technological, economic, political, and strategic perspectives—new challenges and practical opportunities facing the global political and business communities for establishing fuel assurances to bridge the gap between growing interest in nuclear nonproliferation and peaceful energy use.