Up to three loadings of low enriched uranium will be given to nations with a small or start-up programme

Indian support for a multi-million dollar International Atomic Energy Agency plan to create a ‘fuel bank' of low enriched uranium for use by countries with a small or start-up civil nuclear energy programme is intended to signal its willingness to be a supplier nation.

The fuel bank plan was adopted last week by the IAEA governing body, of which India is a member, by 28-0 with six abstentions. India voted for the resolution, which is intended to provide fuel to countries accepting full scope safeguards — international inspections — on all their nuclear activities. This means India, along with the five “official” nuclear weapons states as defined by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, will be ineligible to draw on the bank. So will Pakistan and Israel and, presumably, North Korea, until it reverses its withdrawal from the NPT.

Explaining India's support for the plan, its delegate told the Board of Governors that “as a country with advanced nuclear technology, India would like to participate as a supplier state in such initiatives.” He said: “As a country with well established high-level capabilities over the entire fuel cycle and a sizeable pool of highly qualified and trained manpower, India is prepared to supplement international efforts for sustainable growth of nuclear energy while addressing proliferation concerns.”

In particular, India believed that there was a considerable potential in the use of thorium-based fuels for light-water reactors (which conventionally use LEU) that would allow both the “proliferation-resistant use of fissile material” as well as higher energy output, he said.

Unlike the 2009 Russian proposal on a fuel bank — India abstained from voting on it — the latest IAEA resolution does not require recipient countries to abjure enrichment activities of their own. Nevertheless, India made it clear in its explanation of vote at Vienna that “the right of any member state to carry out research and development on nuclear fuel cycles for peaceful purposes should not be affected by these arrangements.” Nonaligned countries such as Brazil, Egypt and South Africa have tended to view Western-sponsored proposals for a nuclear fuel bank as an instrument to deny them the right to pursue their own enrichment programmes.

Senior officials here say India has actively participated in international discussions on fuel bank arrangements with a view to making it easier for countries to start or expand nuclear energy programmes, while reducing the risk of proliferation. “Given India's mastery over the fuel cycle, our perspective has really been one of a supplier nation,” sources told The Hindu.

The IAEA fuel bank is intended to take care of market-based disruptions in LEU supply that countries with a fully safeguarded civil nuclear program may experience. The quantities involved are modest — up to three loadings — and are conceptually very different from the lifetime fuel supply arrangements India will be making for each of its civilian reactors going under safeguards.

In its explanation of vote at the IAEA, India said artificial restrictions should not be imposed on supplier states which are in a position to support such fuel supply arrangements. India is comfortable with a plan which requires recipient states to be parties to the NPT, but warned that such a condition could not be imposed on suppliers. “India is not a party to the NPT. India, therefore, is not bound by the decisions of the NPT Review Conference. Nothing in the resolution can derogate the rights of member states of the IAEA as provided in its Statute. Similarly, we believe that the implementation of the resolution, including the role played by the DG, should remain strictly within the bounds of the Statute of the IAEA and the respective safeguard agreements between member states and the Agency.”

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