The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 17 October took delivery of a shipment of low enriched uranium (LEU) at the purpose-built LEU Bank in Kazakhstan which is intended to provide assurance to countries about the availability of nuclear fuel. “With the arrival of the first shipment, the IAEA LEU Bank is now established and operational,” IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta said. “It is the first time the Agency has undertaken a project of this legal, operational and logistical complexity.”

Bringing the project to fruition required concerted efforts involving many areas of the IAEA’s activities. The project included:

  • Negotiating a legal framework for the IAEA LEU Bank with Kazakhstan and the operator, Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk;
  • Designing and building an LEU storage facility, in line with IAEA safety standards and security guidance;
  • Working with the Government of Kazakhstan to enhance its legal and regulatory framework;
  • Concluding transit agreements for the transport of the LEU to and from the site with China and the Russian Federation, as well as separate transport contracts with Kazakhstan’s KTZ Express   and Russia’s Techsnabexport (Tenex); and
  • Acquiring 90 tonnes of LEU, from two vendors, in what was the IAEA’s largest single procurement in its history.

The first LEU shipment, from France’s Orano Cycle, was transported by truck to a French port, by ship to the Russian Federation, and by train to Kazakhstan. Upon arrival at the site, the 32 cylinders of LEU – typically sufficient for one re-load of fuel for a light-water reactor – were checked by IAEA experts on the ground. The IAEA expects to receive the second LEU shipment, from Kazakhstan’s National Atomic Company “Kazatomprom”, by the end of 2019.

Marta Ferrari, the IAEA’s Acting Project Executive for the LEU Bank, was at the site to inspect the consignment and sign the delivery documents. “Because of the long journey, it took more than four weeks to transport the LEU to the site. It required coordination among many partners involved in the project,” she said. “We have gained valuable experience, as well as confidence, that we can use this transport route in case a country requests supply of LEU.”

In an earlier milestone for the project, late IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in August 2017 inaugurated the IAEA LEU Storage Facility at UMP. The establishment and operation of the IAEA LEU Bank are fully funded by voluntary contributions from IAEA member states and other donors totalling $150 million, covering estimated costs for 20 years of operation. Donors include the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the USA, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Norway and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan contributed also in kind by hosting the IAEA LEU Bank.

The IAEA Board of Governors decided in December 2010 to establish the   Bank as an assurance of supply mechanism of last resort for member states that experience a supply disruption due to exceptional circumstances and are unable to secure nuclear power fuel from the commercial market, state-to-state arrangements or by any other means. It will be a physical reserve of 90 metric tons of LEU. Other assurance of supply mechanisms established with IAEA approval include a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by the Russian Federation at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, Russian Federation, and assurance of supply guaranty by the UK for supplies of LEU enrichment services.