It was back in 2010 that the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed unanimously to create an international nuclear fuel bank to provide non-nuclear nations with low-enriched uranium that could be used for peaceful energy and research programs, but not bomb-making.
The idea was forged back in 2006 by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI’s co-chair, former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., solicited philanthropist Warren Buffet to contribute the first $50 million to fund the fuel bank, once other nations contributed another $100 million.
If Iran had genuinely wanted to pursue a nuclear program geared strictly toward peaceful ends, a UN nuclear fuel bank could have provided a smart and safe way to proceed.
But of course, Iran’s goal was never just obtaining non-weapons grade uranium for energy production and research. It was always to be able to enrich its own uranium to weapons grade levels. Indeed, Iran has built a heavy-water reactor near Arak, which could be used to produce plutonium for bomb-making.
So Iran pursued its own nuclear program, with Russia providing its nuclear fuel. And the world’s leading nations, led by the United States, clamped on tough sanctions that have caused Iran’s citizens economic hardships. But Iran’s leaders endured the world’s sanctions because Iran was always working to either develop a nuclear bomb - or to develop the capacity for building their own nuclear bomb at a future time. The question now is whether Iran now wants to rejoin the world’s community of nations - to bring new life to Iranian citizens. And whether Iran will be willing to accept global inspections and safeguards to assure that it never uses its bomb-making capacity. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear ambitions have already destabilized the Middle East and created new uncertainties. And that is where the new UN international nuclear fuel bank can provide a lasting, peace-making contribution.
Among the nations that contributed to the now $150 million fuel bank are Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, along with the United States, European Union and Norway. It would not be surprising if those Middle East nations and others from the region become beneficiaries of the UN nuclear fuel bank as a way of bringing a greater degree of balance and stability to the region.
So far, the international nuclear fuel bank is a grand idea that has moved toward reality with just glacial speed. Indeed, glaciers are melting faster than the UN nuclear fuel bank has been moving.
From the time the fuel bank was proposed in 2006, it took four years to get the rest of the world to ante up and get the UN diplomats to put themselves into motion. If this were a television show, we’d label their top speed slow motion. Kazakhstan, which produces more uranium ore than any other nation, has agreed to serve as the world’s nuclear fuel banker, hosting the repository that will be heavily guarded.
At one time, those working on the project thought the UN nuclear fuel bank would be up and running this year. Now they are hoping for an Opening Day ribbon-cutting sometime in 2014. Maybe.
In December 2010, when the IAEA voted to begin the nuclear fuel bank, the NTI’s Nunn hailed the decision and warned of its urgency.
“This is a breakthrough in global cooperation to enable peaceful uses of nuclear energy while reducing the risks of proliferation and catastrophic terrorism,” said Nunn. “If every country interested in nuclear energy also chooses to pursue nuclear enrichment, the risk of proliferation of dangerous nuclear materials and weapons would grow beyond the tipping point.”
Exactly three years later this week, our global news media’s big eye is focused unblinkingly on Iran’s nuclear intentions.
But we have lost sight of our peripheral but urgent nuclear efforts. Especially the nuclear fuel bank that may someday safeguard us from our next Iran.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.