The Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Tasneem Jamal

Simon Palamar

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2008 Volume 29 Issue 4

On December 8, 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower stood before the United Nations and described “the fearful atomic dilemma” that faced the world, pledging that the United States would seek “the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” Eisenhower was referring to the double-edged sword of nuclear fission.

The destructive power of the atom had been well demonstrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; yet in the shadow of those human tragedies lay the optimism that the atom could be harnessed for peace, creating what Winston Churchill (Cirincione 2007, p. 23) called “a perennial fountain of world prosperity.” What Eisenhower proposed in 1953 was to mitigate the risks associated with spreading nuclear technology around the globe, while allowing humankind to enjoy its virtues via an international atomic energy organization that would be trusted with storing and distributing civilian nuclear fuel that was donated by states that had mastered the atom to those that had not, while ensuring recipients did not abuse this gift by building a nuclear weapon.

As clichéd as it sounds, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today the world faces the same dilemma that Eisenhower feared in the first decade of the nuclear age: how to allow nuclear power to be exploited for peaceful uses while preventing ploughshares from being beaten into terrible swords. Key to such an achievement was, and is, the multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle—enacting multinational controls on the proliferation of the technologies used to turn raw uranium ore into civilian nuclear fuel, while still making that fuel easily available to countries that comply with the nonproliferation standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Several times in the history of international cooperation during the nuclear era, the nuclear fuel cycle has been identified as the fulcrum between nuclear prosperity and terror.

In either the generation of electricity or the creation of a nuclear weapon, natural uranium ore must be refined and enriched to increase the number of fissile (and rare) uranium-235 isotopes, or plutonium must be created by bombarding common uranium-238 isotopes with neutrons and then separating that plutonium from fission waste products. These two approaches—isotopic enrichment and plutonium separation—and their associated technologies can be used to make both reactor fuel and weapon-usable material. The series of processes that turn raw uranium ore into uranium or plutonium fuel (uranium or plutonium bomb pits) is known as the nuclear fuel cycle. While civilian reactor fuel does not contain enough U-235 to make a bomb and the unseparated plutonium found in used reactor fuel cannot be used to make an explosive without considerable reprocessing, civilian uranium enrichment and plutonium production programs can be used to make weapon-grade fissile material.1

How to limit fuel cycle technologies

Today several proposals to guarantee countries access to civilian nuclear fuel while limiting the spread of fuel cycle technologies are either being implemented or actively debated in a number of forums around the world. Although Canada does not currently enrich uranium or separate plutonium, its status as the single largest producer of natural uranium products means that this country not only has a vested interest in these proposals but may also influence their outcome.

In 2005 the IAEA released a report that outlined possible multilateral fuel cycle arrangements. Some of its recommendations (briefly indicated in italics below) are paralleled by real-world initiatives, i.e., these initiatives resemble IAEA recommendations but are not necessarily products of this report.

  • IAEA to be a third-party guarantor of supply. The nongovernmental organization Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has attempted to raise US$150-million for an IAEA-administered civilian fuel bank. Another proposal along these lines is the United Kingdom’s Enrichment Bond concept, in which the IAEA would act as a guarantor for fuel contracts signed between customers and suppliers. The IAEA would monitor customer compliance with nonproliferation standards and only under IAEA directive would the supplier be allowed to cut off fuel supplies.
  • Converting existing fuel production facilities to multinational ownership. The governments of Russia and Kazakhstan have partnered to form the International Uranium Enrichment Consortium (IUEC), which has seen the Kazakh government invest in a Russian-owned uranium enrichment facility. Kazakhstan receives civilian fuel and a share of the profits, while no technology is transferred to the Kazakh nuclear industry.
  • The creation of new fuel facilities under multilateral control. Under this German proposal enrichment facilities would be operated in an IAEA-administered territory. The IAEA would not control the facility but would regulate the export of nuclear fuel from the zone (IAEA 2007).
  • Broadened cooperation between nations on nuclear expansion. The elaborate US-initiated Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) seeks to increase plutonium separation capacity around the world while successfully commercializing fast-neutron reactors that would effectively burn up the plutonium and associated transuranic elements produced in the process (thus reducing total volume of waste) by coordinating the efforts of interested national governments. GNEP currently faces considerable opposition in the US Congress and as of June 2008 the program has largely been denied requested funding (Pomper 2008, pp. 1-2).

Support for multilateralism

While all these proposals envision some participation by the IAEA, they offer different interpretations of what multilateral means. The German and NTI proposals see the IAEA as a facilitator, regulator, and distributor of fuel; participating nations would be required to submit to IAEA authority. At the other end of the spectrum, the GNEP proposal has interested parties working in concert, with some IAEA oversight and coordination; “multilateral” in this case simply refers to the plurality of participants and the cooperative nature of the effort.

The range and depth of support for multilateral fuel cycle arrangements vary both among nations that currently have significant commercial fuel cycle industries and among nations, such as Canada, which aspire to enrich uranium. It is worthwhile to delineate the range of positions, from the very active agendas of the US and Russia, to the more apprehensive stands taken by Canada and others. A common refrain from a number of states at the 2008 NPT Preparatory Committee was that any future multilateral fuel cycle arrangements cannot infringe upon the right of states, under Article IV of the NPT, to pursue their own, indigenous fuel cycle activities. This position was taken by Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa, France, and Iran (Reaching Critical Will 2008).

This position stands in stark contrast to the United States, which is not only strongly in favour of multilateral arrangements with IAEA participation,2 but which until spring 2008 argued that any state that did not already have nuclear fuel cycle technology should not be allowed to acquire it in the future (Cheadle 2008; NTI 2007). While the UK and Russia have strongly advocated neither for keeping fuel cycle options open nor for denying the technology to new users, both seem in favour of arrangements that do not interfere with Article IV rights or existing market mechanisms (Reaching Critical Will 2008).

The guarantees made in Article IV of the NPT are the crux of the issue. Current debate over Iran’s nuclear program is complicated by the fact that Iran has violated the NPT by failing to disclose its nuclear activities to the IAEA. Iranian enrichment efforts are not in themselves illegal under the NPT. Current efforts to isolate and censure the regime are therefore built on the belief that its leaders seek to pervert legal activities into a military program.

Multilateral fuel cycle arrangements, as they stand today, may persuade the financially stretched nuclear aspirants of this world to forgo the development of their own fuel-making capacities and, instead, to invest their limited funds in other peaceful nuclear activities.

However, current arrangements stand little chance of persuading proliferating states to abandon their own technologies. The current track advocated by Canada and others—that fuel banks, multilateral enrichment centres, and third-party guarantees are fine, as long as they do not impede our right to enrich uranium3—may potentially throw up a political barrier that could make it difficult to deny sensitive technology to would-be proliferators. It stands to exasperate the stresses that already weigh upon the NPT by ignoring the proliferation potential embedded in Article IV. Alternatively, attempting to implement de jure or de facto limits on the accessibility of peaceful nuclear technology via the NPT threatens the tripartite bargain of nuclear abolition, nonproliferation, and peaceful nuclear sharing embodied in the pact and thus the foundation of the world’s imperfect, but also largely successful, nonproliferation regime.

Neither the dual-use nature of the nuclear fuel cycle nor the proliferation risks it poses are new. Yet the passage of time has not mitigated the danger that the nuclear fuel cycle poses. Controlling proliferation while safely allowing the peaceful use of nuclear energy is just as salient a concern today as at any time in the atomic age.

Simon Palamar is a student in the MA Program in Global Governance at the University of Waterloo. He completed an internship at Project Ploughshares during the Spring 2008 term.



  1. Natural uranium is only approximately 0.7 per cent U-235. Civilian reactor fuel typically contains 3-5 per cent U-235, whereas weapon-grade material is typically closer to 90 per cent U-235. Civilian plutonium (often referred to as “reactor-grade” plutonium) contains in excess of 7 per cent Pu-240, a relatively unstable isotope of plutonium, which in concentrations beyond 7 per cent poses significant challenges to nuclear weapon design. Furthermore, plutonium is created and contained in nuclear reactors in irradiated fuel bundles. If it is to be used for either electricity generation or weapon production it must be chemically separated from the irradiated fuel in an enormously expensive, technically challenging, and potentially dangerous process.
  2. The American donation of US$50-million to the IAEA/NTI initiative is the single largest contribution to the fuel bank scheme thus far.
  3. Current debate indicates a substantial interest in licensing and pursuing uranium enrichment in Canada. While there is no reason to suggest that such enrichment activity in Canada poses a proliferation risk, it may make convincing other countries to voluntarily waive their rights to enrichment or plutonium reprocessing far more difficult. See Cheadle 2008.


Cheadle, Bruce. 2008. Tories mum on nuclear enrichment strategy. The Globe and Mail, May 7.

Cirincione, Joseph. 2007. Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. 1953. Address by Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, to the 470th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. World Nuclear University.

International Atomic Energy Agency. 2007. Communication received from the Resident Representative of Germany to the IAEA with regard to the German proposal on the Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. Information Circular INFCIRC/704, May 4.

Nuclear Threat Initiative. 2007. Press Release, “NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn Praises U.S. Commitment of $50 Million for IAEA Fuel Bank,” December 28.

Pomper, Miles. 2008. US House Panel slashes GNEP funding, but Bush Administration continues supporting expansive vision. GNEP Watch: Developments in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership 8.

Reaching Critical Will. 2008. 2008 NPT Preparatory Committee, 28 April – 9 May, Geneva.

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