Nuclear Fuel Supply Proposals Aimed at Weakness in Nonproliferation Regime

Angarsk, a city of about 270,000 in southeastern Siberia, is the home of the Angarsk Electrolyzing and Chemical Combine, a plant created to enrich uranium for the Soviet nuclear program. Throughout its history, the plant has been a restricted area -- closed to all foreign visitors. On Nov. 28, 2006, however, the state-funded Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that the Russian government has decided to remove the Angarsk plant from its list of restricted areas. Soon, according to the report, Angarsk will become the site of the world's first "international uranium enrichment center" (IUEC).

Enriched uranium fuel is required by almost all nuclear reactors in use around the world today. However, enriched uranium is also used in the cores of nuclear weapons. The difference between bomb fuel and reactor fuel is the level of enrichment -- building a bomb requires that the fuel must be enriched to contain at least 20 percent of the rarer uranium isotope U-235 (ideally, closer to 95 percent), while most modern nuclear power plants operate at enrichment levels well below 20 percent.

Because the technology used to enrich uranium to the levels used to fuel power plants is essentially same as the technology required to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons -- the difference lies mostly in the time required to enrich the fuel -- any technology used to enrich uranium fuel for power plants is inherently "dual-use." Since Article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ensures access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology for non-nuclear weapon states, however, the technology for uranium enrichment must be permitted to all states under the current nonproliferation regime. Countries like Iran could therefore, in principle, develop their enrichment technology up to a certain point under the cloak of a "peaceful" nuclear energy program before jettisoning the peaceful-use pretense and rapidly developing nuclear weapons -- a scenario often described as a "break out."

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