With help from billionaire Warren Buffett, U.N. sets up nuclear fuel 'bank'

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 10:39 PM

After years of debate and a fundraising campaign launched by investor Warren Buffett, the U.N. atomic agency decided Friday to set up a $150 million uranium fuel "bank" aimed at slowing the spread of dangerous nuclear material around the globe.

The idea of such a bank has been floated for decades, but the concept took on new urgency with the development of Iran's nuclear program and the recent explosion of interest in nuclear energy.

The bank would guarantee the sale of fuel for countries' nuclear power plants, theoretically eliminating their need to develop it themselves. The same centrifuges used to prepare uranium for power plants can also be used to enrich it to higher, weapons-grade levels.

President Obama has touted the fuel bank, which will get $50 million from the U.S. government.

"This is a breakthrough in global cooperation to enable peaceful uses of nuclear energy while reducing the risks of proliferation and catastrophic terrorism," said former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private group that played a key role in getting the bank off the ground.

Although more guarded, academic experts said the bank was a positive step at a time of rising fears of nuclear proliferation.

"The bank is not a guarantee against the risk some countries might choose to proliferate," said Lawrence Scheinman of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "But the fewer the countries that have capacity to enrich [uranium] in the first place, the lower the prospect is they will be able to weaponize."

Nations on the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted 28-0 to approve the bank, with six abstentions and one country absent.

The fuel bank, in essence, will ensure the sale of uranium for power plants to countries that are in good standing with the U.N. energy watchdog. The new institution is meant to be a backup in case countries face a cutoff from commercial suppliers.

A senior U.S. official said the bank was not likely to prompt Iran to alter its nuclear program, which is widely suspected of being aimed at developing weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

"But it does undercut their argument that they need to have an indigenous [uranium] enrichment program because they can't be confident they can rely on" outside suppliers of fuel, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The fuel bank project got going in 2006 after Nunn approached Buffett with the idea. Buffett pledged $50 million, on the condition that governments kick in $100 million. That total was reached last year, with donations from the United States, the European Union, Kuwait, Norway and the United Arab Emirates.

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