Inaction may put atom fuel bank funds at risk: U.S.

VIENNA Mon Sep 20, 2010 10:19am EDT

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VIENNA (Reuters) - A planned global uranium fuel bank, aimed at stemming the spread of nuclear weapons as more countries seek atomic energy, is at risk of losing key funding unless action is taken soon, the United States said on Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is mulling several plans under which states would be provided with low-enriched uranium (LEU) for their civilian nuclear programs if their supply is cut and they can show a perfect non-proliferation record. U.S. President Barack Obama has backed the decades-old idea but some developing states have voiced misgivings that it may limit their right to set up sovereign atomic energy programs.

An IAEA plan promoted by former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei proposes buying 60-80 tons of LEU using $150 million in member donations and offering it to states at market prices.

The United States has contributed $50 million to the plan.

"Taken together with pledges from the (U.S.-based) Nuclear Threat Initiative and other member states, $150 million has been pledged for this purpose," U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the IAEA annual general conference.

"This offer has been extended several times and presents member states with an excellent opportunity to realize one of the founding objectives of the IAEA. These resources will be at risk if we do not reach a decision soon."

Chu said countries should push for a resolution approving an implementation plan at the next IAEA governing board meeting in December. "It is now time to move beyond general discussion and debate of fuel bank principles," he said at the Vienna meeting.

The fuel bank is seen by the U.N. nuclear agency as a way to meet demand from some 60 nations, some in the conflict-ridden Middle East, for technical help in launching atomic energy without spreading the risk of proliferation.

Iran's disputed enrichment program, which the West fears is aimed at developing atom bombs, has also helped the idea up the agenda as well after decades on the political back-burner.

Major uranium producer Russia has offered to host an IAEA-administered fuel bank in a complementary plan. The 35-nation IAEA board approved Russia's initiative last November.

But on Monday, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said more discussions were needed on the topic because of varying views.

"While it is clear that views differ among member states, there is a convergence of views that the issue needs to be discussed further," he told the 151-nation IAEA.

"I believe that the agency is the appropriate forum for these discussions and encourage member states to find suitable ways of dealing with this issue."

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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