The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Kazakhstan signed an agreement on 27 August establishing a bank of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk in northeastern Kazakhstan. The bank, will be governed by Kazakhstan's laws but will be fully managed and operated by the IAEA. The Ulba plant has been handling and storing nuclear material, including LEU, safely and securely for more than 60 years.
The establishment and operation bank is fully funded through $150m of voluntary contributions from the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the US, the EU, the UAE, Kuwait, Norway and Kazakhstan. Their contributions will cover the cost of the facility for the first 10 years of operation.
The IAEA Board of Governors authorised the establishment and operation of the bank in December 2010 and in July 2011, Kazakhstan offered to host it. Since then, Kazakhstan and the IAEA have been working on the technical details for its establishment and have negotiated the Host State Agreement.
In June 2015, the IAEA and Russia signed an agreement allowing transit of LEU and equipment through Russian territory to and from the bank.
The storage facility, set to become fully operational in 2017, is intended to provide IAEA member states with confidence in a steady and predictable supply of fuel for NPPs if other supply mechanisms are disrupted. The bank will comprise a physical reserve of up to 90t of LEU, which is enough to run a 1,000MWe light-water reactor. US Senator Sam Nunn, NTI co-chairman and CEO, said the bank "will enable and encourage peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while reducing the risks of proliferation and reducing the risks of catastrophic terrorism". Kazakhstan said the next day that it would store low-enriched uranium (LEU) from Iran at the bank if the IAEA decides that it is necessary.
"I am confident that the IAEA LEU Bank will operate safely and securely, in line with the applicable IAEA nuclear safety standards and nuclear security guidance," IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said. "A lot of work must still be done, but after the signing of the relevant documents today, the legal framework is fully in place and we can move ahead with full-scale implementation," Amano said. He also said that, in line with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran's nuclear programme, signed in July, Iran might in the future offer part of its own LEU stocks for the bank. Inventory for the bank will be bought through open tenders.
The IAEA earlier approved a similar LEU store comprising a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by Russia at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre (IUEC) in Angarsk which was established in 2007 by Russia and Kazakhstan. The aim of the project was to provide assured access to uranium enrichment to interested parties without transferring the sensitive technology or restricting development of national nuclear fuel cycle programmes. Ukraine and Armenia later joined the IUEC.
In the context of the agreement setting up the IUEC Russia proposed creating a guaranteed LEU reserve, which would be controlled by the IAEA and could be used by member states unable to procure LEU on the open market for political reasons. The IAEA Board approved this initiative in 2009 and an agreement was signed in 2010. The guaranteed reserve was placed in the IUEC storage facility in full (120t of LEU up to 4.95%) and inaugurated in December 2010 following the first IAEA inspection. The agreement entered into force in February 2011.