June 18, 2009 / 6:06 PM / 10 years ago

Obama-backed nuclear fuel bank plan stalls at IAEA

VIENNA (Reuters) - A uranium fuel supply plan hailed by U.S. President Barack Obama as a way to stem the spread of nuclear arms stalled in talks at the U.N. atomic watchdog on Thursday after resistance from developing nations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency and industrialized nations argue that a multilateral uranium-enrichment center would best meet growing global nuclear energy demand while dissuading nations from building proliferation-prone enrichment plants themselves.

But emerging nations, who fear “multinationalizing” control over the fuel cycle would curb their right to home-grown atomic energy for electricity, rejected a request by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to develop a detailed plan for approval in September.

While developing states agreed to let talks go on, they warned others on the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board against “attempts meant to discourage the pursuit of any peaceful nuclear technology on grounds of its alleged ‘sensitivity’.”

Diplomats in the boardroom said India led the objections. “A large number of delegations do not want to proceed,” the Indian chief delegate said. Developing nations comprise about half the IAEA board, which makes key decisions by diplomatic consensus.

Current board chairman Taous Feroukhi of Algeria agreed there was no consensus to move forward and so referred the proposal to further “discussions and consultations.”

“(Developing nation) delegations kept saying they felt this plan would hamper their inalienable and sovereign right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle,” said a Vienna diplomat in the closed-door gathering.

“The bottom line is, the plan is not dead but discussions will continue with nowhere near the enthusiasm the IAEA Secretariat had hoped for,” another diplomat told Reuters. “There will be a huge delay in getting this thing done.”

OBAMA’S VISION

The aim of an IAEA-supervised fuel bank is to provide low-enriched uranium from industrialized nations’ stocks if recipients meet strict non-proliferation criteria. Uranium enriched to high levels forms the fissile core of atom bombs.

In a landmark speech on nuclear disarmament in April, Obama said the plan would give any country the benefits of nuclear power if they renounced atomic weapons, giving a hefty extra boost to a plan that was backed by the Bush administration.

“We should keep in mind that the purpose of these proposals is to expand, not to restrict, access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” U.S. envoy Geoffrey Pyatt told the IAEA board.

The idea, which is not new, was given fresh impetus by Iran’s expanding enrichment program which the West suspects is geared to yielding atom bombs, something Tehran denies. North Korea’s nuclear tests have also added urgency.

The IAEA expects demand for nuclear power to rise rapidly, especially in unstable regions of the world, with over 60 states asking the IAEA to help develop their nuclear power potential.

Two main draft plans have been floated. An IAEA proposal said $150 million in donations pledged for the initiative could buy 60-80 tons of low-enriched uranium that would be offered to member states at market prices. Russia has offered to host an 120-tonne LEU reserve to supply the U.N. watchdog.

Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Charles Dick

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