New LEU bank in Kazakhstan

11 October 2017

Molly Lempriere reports from the opening of the nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan.

On 29 August, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, officially opened its first low enriched uranium (LEU) bank in Oskemen, Kazakhstan. The bank will be able to hold 90t of uranium, in sixty 1.5t cylinders.

“The goal is to form a guaranteed supply of fuel for countries that do not have the ability to enrich uranium,” said IAEA general director Yukiya Amano at the opening ceremony in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana attended by Nuclear Engineering International.

The LEU bank is designed to act as an insurance policy for IAEA member states. Should uranium not be available through the normal market due to unforeseen circumstances, a state may apply to the IAEA for uranium to ensure that nuclear power plants will continue to function.

The bank includes enough uranium to sustain a standard light-water reactor of 1000MW for several years, or enough to power a large city, in a move that aims to boost the energy security of nuclear-reliant nations. The facility was completed on time and on budget in September 2016, and a final report was produced for approval by Amano.

The opening of the bank

The bank is an 880 square metre steel structure, containing the empty cylinder stands that are awaiting the first uranium delivery, currently planned for 2018. Towards the front of the heavily guarded building there is a control room, from which radiation levels can be monitored.

The official opening ceremony of the bank took place in two locations simultaneously: at the bank itself in the north-east of Kazakhstan, and in Astana. The ceremony included the presentation of a symbolic key to the director general of the IAEA by Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“We are here on a very significant day, special not just for our country but for the global community,” said Nazarbayev.

The bank was originally proposed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in 2006. Over a number of years, various sites for a uranium bank were suggested and put forward, including two proposed in Kazakhstan in 2011. The site in Oskemen was chosen, and an agreement was signed in 2015 allowing construction to begin.

The total cost of the project is $150m, all of which has been donated by a number of countries and organisations including the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the USA and the EU. Kazakhstan has contributed $400,000 along with in-kind contributions such as the use of its national guard, which protects the facility.

The donor states spoke of the importance of the IAEA’s actions during the opening ceremony. They praised the efforts made towards nuclear power security and non-proliferation as they gained a glimpse of the new facility.

Why Ulba?

The bank has been built within the Ulba facility, a metallurgical plant that produces tantalum, beryllium and uranium. The
plant has been in operation since 1949, and originally focused on nuclear weaponry. In 1977, the plant’s focus officially shifted when it produced its first nuclear fuel pellets for use in Soviet nuclear plants.

For the last 20 years the site has adhered to IAEA safeguards, a factor which led in part to its selection. The site was chosen for a number of reasons, including the large number of highly qualified uranium specialists close at hand. As a commercially licensed nuclear facility it was felt that it could safely and securely store, transport and process LEU.

But while the bank is in the Ulba facility it will not be owned or operated by it; control remains firmly with the IAEA. “All the material will be owned by the IAEA and the creation of the bank will help stop the spread of enriched uranium,” said Amano.

This is an intrinsic aspect of the bank; as it is not owned by a specific country it cannot be used as a political weapon. As Nazarbayev said: “Trade [and] economic conflicts cannot be allowed to become physical.”

The IAEA also hopes that the security the bank provides will act as an incentive for more countries to embrace nuclear power. “It is very important that a last-resort mechanism such as the IAEA LEU Bank is established to give countries confidence that they will be able to meet their future needs for nuclear fuel,” Amano said.

Uranium hexafluoride (UF6) enriched to 4.95% has been chosen for the bank, as it can be fabricated into the right kind of fuel for any nuclear power plant currently in use. It takes several months to be turned into fuel. It emits only a small amount of radiation that will be contained by the protective cylinders and constantly monitored.

Should a leak occur, the main risk presented by UF6 is not the radiation, but heavy metal toxicity if it is allowed to react with hydrogen in the air. Hydrogen fluoride (HF) gas and uranyl fluoride, a metallic compound, would be created. The HF gas would disperse, affecting people as much as 1.5 miles away. The uranyl fluoride, if inhaled, would damage the inhaler’s kidneys; it would settle quickly, however, only posing a health risk within the bank itself.

Precautions have been taken and access to the bank will be very limited and dependent on monitored radiation levels.

The bank’s non-proliferation role

The launch of the LEU bank was timed to coincide with two days of importance: the International Day against Nuclear Tests; and the anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. The test site was opened in 1946 by the USSR at the junction of the East Kazakhstan, Pavlodar and Karaganda regions, and during its lifespan around 456 tests took place within the facility. It is thought that 1.3million people were exposed to radiation from Semipalatinsk.

It was officially closed on 29 August 1991 by presidential decree, one of Nazarbayev’s first actions following independence. This was a significant move, highlighting Kazakhstan’s transition away from nuclear weapons and towards repurposing military-industrial test sites, nuclear experts and resources to focus on nuclear energy.

In 2009, Nazarbayev proposed that the day should become the International Day against Nuclear Tests, and in December of that year the UN adopted the resolution. Events and activities are held annually to raise awareness and educate people about the devastation of nuclear tests in the hope that they will not be repeated.

The LEU bank is intended to play a role not just in nuclear power security, but also as a deterrent against nuclear weapons development. Few countries around the world have the facilities required to enrich uranium, without which it cannot be weaponised or used as fuel. By assuring a supply of enriched uranium, the IAEA hopes to minimise the need for countries to develop enrichment facilities.

Over the last 26 years, Kazakhstan has played a role in non-proliferation. In 1991, it renounced its nuclear weapons, at the time the fourth biggest nuclear armoury in the world. Currently it is acting as co-chair at the Conference on Article XIV of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Kazakhstan’s commitment to non-proliferation was a key reason why it was selected to host the IAEA’s LEU bank.

Who else benefits? The advancement of non-proliferation efforts was a core purpose of the project, together with ensuring a steady fuel supply for members. Suggestions made during the press conference which followed the opening ceremony that the IAEA could benefit financially from the project were flatly rejected by the agency.

“IAEA is not a commercial body and will not become one,” said Amano. “There is no possibility that we will get into the commercial area.”

Should a member state be unable to source uranium through the normal channels, it can apply to the IAEA to purchase fuel at current market rates. Only the director general can approve this transaction, and only once the state has proved it has proper safeguards in place. The money used to purchase the fuel will then be used to restock the bank.

Similarly, the benefits for Kazakhstan have been a cause for concern. Although Kazakhstan has no nuclear power plants of its own, it possesses the second largest deposits of uranium in the world, with 629,100t of known recoverable reserves. It is also the biggest producer of uranium in the world, producing 22,500t in 2013, or 38% of total global production. As such, sceptical questions were asked by journalists in the packed press conference in Astana’s new Hilton Hotel. Would Kazakhstan stand to gain economically from housing the bank? Would Kazakhstani uranium be given preferential treatment?

These allegations were denied, and instead the benefits to Kazakhstan’s reputation cited. “It is not beneficial financially for Kazakhstan,” said Kazakhstani Minister of Energy Kanat Bozumbayev. “It will increase the significance and social standing of Kazakhstan globally.”

What’s next?

The bank is now fully constructed, but uranium is yet to be delivered to the site. The first tender to supply LEU to the bank will be opened this year, and will continue into 2018 when the first uranium is hoped to be installed. Any country is able to take part in the tenders, provided they meet the standards set out by the IAEA. This means there is the potential for both Russia and the USA to take part.

The uranium bank includes its own railway, allowing uranium to be brought directly into the site. From the rail track it can be easily carried into the bank for storage, with little risk of stress on the UF6 and casings, which could lead to radiation leaks. These casings have been certified by the IAEA to operate safely for 80-100 years.

“The storage facility has been designed and built to provide a high level of safety and security for the LEU Bank,” asserted IAEA LEU Bank project executive Mark Bassett.

In June 2015, an agreement was signed to allow the fuel to be transported through Russia. A similar agreement was signed with China in May 2017.

The IAEA’s LEU bank presents an important step forward for nuclear fuel supply security and non-proliferation efforts. Uranium banks provide several obvious benefits, but the IAEA’s position outside of national politics is potentially the most important aspect. It will not simply be a safeguard for one nation, but for the world.  

Molly Lempriere is a features writer with NRI Digital, part of Compelo. She covers a range of energy topics, including nuclear. 

Kazakhstan New forklift in action inside the LEU fuel bank in July. The cylinder belongs to Ulba Metallurgical Plant and was use for demonstration purposes only
Kazakhstan LEU fuel bank the day before its official opening

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