A New Option for a Nuclear Iran

It's time to reexamine the option of a nuclear fuel bank.

Recent talks on Iran’s nuclear program between Tehran and the parties known as P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, have failed to reach an agreement. But there may yet be some middle ground on which the parties can agree.

A nonproliferation expert present at a July meeting at Iran's mission to the United Nations said that Iran may be open to negotiating on 20 percent uranium enrichment. Iranian statements and the historical record suggest this is a real possibility. By coming to an agreement with Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, centered on fuel assurances from a nuclear fuel bank under control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the P5+1 could ensure that Iran's nuclear capability is used only for peaceful purposes.

Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is ostensibly about having an indigenous source of enriched uranium for energy and medical research. It’s also a symbol of national prestige and modernity. Any concessions the P5+1 offers Iran must address both of these Iranian interests.

Allowing Iran to continue its own uranium enrichment at the 3.5 percent needed for nuclear energy, while under IAEA inspection, would satisfy part of the energy requirement and all of the need to save face. Iran could maintain its right to peaceful use of nuclear technology under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (assuming Iran agrees to its oversight obligations under the NPT) while keeping a safe distance between low-enriched-uranium efforts for energy and the highly enriched uranium needed to develop a nuclear bomb.

As part of any agreement with the P5+1, Iran also would need to halt uranium enrichment of levels over 3.5 percent and ship its 20 percent stockpile out of the country. Guaranteeing an outside supply of 20 percent-enriched uranium for medical isotope research may prove to be a more difficult venture, both diplomatically and logistically. But there are mechanisms that are in place, or soon will be, to help facilitate the process and provide a long-term solution to the issue.

There is one possibility that has been gaining momentum over the past few years, but it has taken a backseat to sanctions and covert actions. The IAEA Board of Governors approved the creation of a nuclear fuel bank in 2010 with the financial support of Warren Buffett and his organization, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, as well as funding from the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. President Barack Obama expressed his support for a fuel bank shortly after taking office in his 2009 Prague speech and again in March of this year. Kazakhstan has offered to host a nuclear fuel bank under IAEA auspices as a way to curb nuclear proliferation and plans to open it late next year. The plans call for having Russia enrich the uranium before it is stored.

The logistics behind a nuclear fuel bank are straightforward. First, the bank would provide a source of low-enriched uranium to states that are in compliance with IAEA safeguard obligations. This would allow states to use nuclear energy while obviating the need to spend the time and money, not to mention the expertise, on enriching uranium. The fuel bank would also ideally be free from any political considerations, so states would not worry about losing their supply of fuel in the event of any international disputes. Second, the fuel bank would help reduce the ambiguity surrounding dual-use technology, an issue that underlies current unease over Iran’s nuclear program. Since states would receive the uranium already enriched in the form of fuel rods, without the possibility of further enriching it to weapons-grade levels, the fuel would have only peaceful uses.