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Nuclear Fuels

January 30, 2006

SECTION: Pg. 1 Vol. 31 No. 3
LENGTH: 725 words

U.S. pressing ElBaradei to agree to safeguard both new SWU plants

Mark Hibbs

At an IAEA meeting in Vienna Jan. 15, representatives from the U.S. government urged the IAEA to quickly agree to apply safeguards to two planned U.S. SWU plants, the LES and USEC Inc. centrifuge enrichment plants, said Vienna officials.

The request follows from a 1981-83 safeguards agreement, the Hexapartite Safeguards Project, whereby six countries?the U.K., Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and U.S., in conjunction with Euratom and the IAEA as observers?agreed that all civil centrifuge enrichment plants must be subjected to permanent IAEA inspections. The IAEA, said one official, "is now between a rock and a hard place" because it has a policy of not applying any more safeguards in nuclear weapons states for reasons of high cost/benefit ratio.

Sources said the U.S. pointed out that, since construction of the USEC plant is slated to begin in 2008, it is imperative that IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei make a decision soon to ensure USEC begins safeguards preparations early such that requirements do not jeopardize the project's timetable.

There is said to be less concern about safeguards preparations for the LES plant, in part because formal agreements between the U.S. and Urenco states from the early 1990s provide the basis for safeguards. In addition, all Urenco plants in Europe are covered by a virtually uniform safeguards regime that would serve as the model for safeguarding LES.

U.S. officials have underscored to the IAEA that the U.S. supports having IAEA safeguards on new SWU plants in the U.S. because the U.S. has been urging more safeguards be applied on centrifuge enrichment programs elsewhere and has supported the Vienna agency during difficult negotiations with Brazil and Iran. U.S. officials said that underlying the Hexapartite agreement is an IAEA commitment to apply safeguards to centrifuge plants in the U.K. and the U.S. They also pointed out that the IAEA applied safeguards during the brief operation of DOE's gas centrifuge plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, from 1983 to 1985.

The IAEA had established a policy during the 1990s of not adding to its task load any additional safeguarding responsibilities in nuclear weapons state parties of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Hexapartite members discussed ambiguous language in a paragraph of the agreement concerning the IAEA's safeguards responsibilities on "planned future facilities," but in the end all six parties agreed that the agreement gave the IAEA a mandate to safeguard the new plants in the U.S.

During the late 1990s, the IAEA agreed to safeguard one of two enrichment facilities built in China equipped with Russian gas centrifuges. In this case, however, the Japanese government agreed to pay for the cost of safeguarding the Chinese SWU plants as a regional confidence building measure. Since then, diplomatic sources said, the future commitment of IAEA states to pay for safeguards on processing plants in weapons states has become very uncertain. Some sources suggested it is doubtful whether Japan will agree to indefinitely pay for the cost of IAEA safeguards on the Chinese installation.

At the Hexapartite discussion in Vienna this month, it was pointed out that, if the IAEA would not agree to pay for safeguards at the U.S. enrichment plants, the U.S. itself could fund the program by making an extra-budgetary contribution to the IAEA. That, however, one Vienna official said, "would make things awkward for France," since in parallel with the LES and USEC facilities, the three Urenco countries in the Hexapartite group have "insisted" that IAEA safeguards be applied to a French enrichment plant to be equipped with Urenco design gas centrifuges (see related story, page 3).

Anticipating objections from the IAEA on budget grounds, Hexapartite agreement members this month discussed some possibilities for reducing the "visit load" pertaining to IAEA surveillance of the U.S. SWU plants, including developing continuous encrypted data relaying, for example on the status of seals, from the plants to Vienna headquarters.

The Hexapartite members "agreed to kick this issue down the road" and to an eventual final decision by ElBaradei, one Vienna official said. "But the bottom line is that it will be up to (IAEA Deputy General for Safeguards Olli) Heinonen to find the money to do this," the official said.