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UN panel says multilateral approach needed to keep nuclear arms from terrorists

UN panel says multilateral approach needed to keep nuclear arms from terrorists

Multilateral control of the world’s civil nuclear fuel cycle is essential for curbing “burgeoning and alarmingly well organized nuclear supply networks” and preventing such materials from falling into the hands of terrorists, according to a report commissioned by the United Nations atomic watchdog agency.

“The decades-long nuclear non-proliferation effort is under threat,” says the study, Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, commissioned last June after the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, suggested that wide dissemination of the most sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle could be the “Achilles’ heel” of the non-proliferation regime.

Such threats come from regional arms races, non-nuclear weapon states in breach of or in non-compliance with safeguards accords, and incomplete application of export controls required by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

But they also arise “from burgeoning and alarmingly well organized nuclear supply networks, and from the increasing risk of acquisition of nuclear or other radioactive materials by terrorist and other non-State entities,” according to the report, drawn up by an expert group that included representatives from 26 countries.

The study, examining the nuclear fuel cycle and multinational approaches, has been sent to the IAEA’s 138 Member States and will be more widely circulated, including to the Review Conference of 189 States party to the NPT in May.

Multilateral approaches are “setting the nuclear agenda,” the group’s Chairman and former Head of IAEA Safeguards, Bruno Pellaud, told a news conference yesterday in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA’s headquarters. He urged concerted action among governments.

“Such approaches are needed and worth pursuing, on both security and economic grounds,” he said, in summing up the group’s consensus. “A joint nuclear facility with multinational staff puts all participants under a greater scrutiny from peers and partners, a fact that strengthens non-proliferation and security.

“Moreover, they have the potential to facilitate the continued use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” he added, noting that multilateral approaches are already followed in Europe and merit close consideration in South Asia and other regions.

The report outlines five approaches to strengthen controls over fuel enrichment, reprocessing, spent fuel repositories and spent fuel storage, including reinforcing existing commercial market mechanisms through long-term contracts and transparent suppliers’ arrangements with government backing. Examples would be fuel leasing and fuel take-back offers, commercial offers to store and dispose of spent fuel, as well as commercial fuel banks.

The proposals also include: developing international supply guarantees with IAEA participation; promoting voluntary conversion of existing facilities to multilateral nuclear approaches; and creating multinational, and in particular regional, approaches for new facilities based on joint ownership for uranium enrichment, fuel reprocessing and disposal and storage of spent fuel.

Finally, the scenario of a further expansion of nuclear energy around the world might call for the development of a nuclear fuel cycle with stronger multilateral arrangements – by region or by continent – and for broader cooperation, involving the IAEA and the international community, the report said.