The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) storage facility for a low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel bank was inaugurated on 29 August at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan at a ceremony attended by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and IAEA director general Yukiya Amano. The IAEA LEU Bank Storage Facility is an 880 square metre high security warehouse, which is owned and managed by the IAEA. It will act as a supplier of last resort to any country using nuclear power, with good non-proliferation credentials, which for some reason is unable to obtain supplies of uranium from the normal commercial market.
The fuel bank will hold a reserve of 90 tonnes of enriched uranium, which the IAEA already has the funding and authority to purchase. However, as each reactor design requires a specific design of fuel assembly, a manufacturer will still be needed to produce usable nuclear fuel. The uranium will need to be transported from storage in Kazakhstan to a appropriate fuel manufacturing plant. Both Russia and China have signed agreements with the IAEA to guarantee safe and secure transit of uranium.
The project has been funded by donations after it was initiated by US businessman Warren Buffet who pledged $50m through the Nuclear Threat Initiative in September 2006, conditional on donation of a further $100m and IAEA assuming responsibility. The financial commitment target was met in March 2009 when Kuwait agreed to contribute $10m in addition to pledges from the US of $50m, the European Union of $32m, the United Arab Emirates of $10m, and Norway of $5m.
UMP began construction of the facility in September 2016 and it was completed on schedule and within budget. IAEA LEU Bank Project Executive Mark Bassett said it was a special purpose-built facility. “The Storage Facility has been designed and built to provide a high level of safety and security for the LEU Bank,” he added. The procurement process for the acquisition of LEU is well advanced and the Request for Proposal inviting bids from interested suppliers will be published soon, with the aim to transport the LEU to the Storage Facility in 2018.
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, and a UK assurance of supply guaranty for supplies of LEU enrichment services.