President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Yukiya Amano, director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), attended the opening ceremony of the Low Enriched Uranium Bank at Oskemen in eastern Kazakhstan by video-conference. The new facility was inaugurated at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has been the scene of many scientific discoveries and fundamental nuclear research since Soviet times. The initial agreement was signed in August 2015 and established an international uranium bank containing low enriched radioactive materials for use in civilian nuclear energy generation. At the time the Kazakh Energy Ministry said that it would serve as a last-resort reserve to cover any unexpected gaps in the world supply.
The Low Enriched Uranium Bank has a total storage capacity of 90 tonnes and a 1,000MW light-water nuclear reactor. Its funding comes directly from voluntary contributions by IAEA member states and has no bearing on the organisation’s annual budget. It has been estimated that, for the Low Enriched Uranium Bank to operate normally during the next 10 years, it will need overall funding of around US$150 million. The Nuclear Threat Reduction Foundation (NTRF) and individual countries have already contributed almost the entire sum: US$50 million from the NTRF; US$49.54 million from the US; US$10 million each from the UAE and Kuwait; US$5 million from Norway, and US$25 million collectively from the European Union. The project took eight years to complete since Kazakhstan first proposed hosting the international uranium facility in 2009.
For Kazakhstan — which has to date hosted a number of prestigious events and conferences, such as the 2010 OSCE summit and this year’s international exhibition EXPO-2017 — winning praise on the nuclear non-proliferation front remains a major objective. Nazarbaev has been repeatedly and unsuccessfully nominated since the mid-2000s for the Nobel Peace Prize, citing his decision to renounce legacy nuclear weapons that Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union and which were later disposed of with Russian and US assistance. The simmering tensions over North Korea’s continued ballistic missile test launches and concerns over President Donald Trump’s confused stance on Iran have put nuclear non-proliferation back into the spotlight. The Low Enriched Uranium Bank should permit Kazakhstan to highlight its neutral mediation capability and further improve the reputation of its president and his regime.
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