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COUNTDOWN TO DOOM

The biggest uranium producer in the world, Kazakhstan has announced that its new Low Enriched Uranium Bank will be ready to receive its first cargo by September 2017, contributing to ensuring a steady supply of uranium to the global market and potentially disincentivizing the pursuit of enrichment programs in the region.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' board members speak at a news conference in Washington, US, on January 26

It's two and half minutes to midnight, and yet this clock isn't ticking. The passing of time does not affect the figures displayed on this clock. Instead, the geopolitical outlook at a given moment changes its face. The doomsday clock flickers forwards and backwards, further from or closer to impending doom, depending not on the passage of time but on the status of humanity's agreement to avoid mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Since January 2017, it is at its closest to midnight, which basically represents Armageddon, since 1953, when it was set at two minutes to 12, the height of the Cold War. Current times are worrying, and while the clock had remained stable at three minutes to midnight since 2015, the election of climate change-denier and arms race-supporter Donald J. Trump for the position of POTUS, in tandem with the rise of nationalism in Europe and growing tensions between the West and well… the rest, has apparently drawn us closer to the end of the world. The fine gentlemen at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have, nonetheless, one reason to rejoice.

On Tuesday, Kazakhstan and IAEA authorities announced that the Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank (LEUB) in the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in eastern Kazakhstan, agreed upon between the two in 2015, and begun in August 2016, will be ready to receive its first load of LEU by September 2017.

The LEUB is a particular sort of bank. Its aim is to ensure a guaranteed supply of nuclear feedstock to IAEA member states for energy production in times when access to LEU in the international market becomes prohibitive or disrupted. At 90 tonnes of LEU, the bank will host enough reserves to power a large city for the better part of three years. Kazakhstan was also the only candidate, and therefore the winner, to receive and host the new LEUB. As the biggest producer of Uranium in the world, Kazakhstan will be the last place to ever run out of feedstock for nuclear power generation.

It is, however, counter-intuitive as a place to host the bank. If access to uranium is disrupted in the international market, it is likely that this will involve disruptions to the production of the commodity in Kazakhstan. Whatever reasons that could be behind future disruptions, such as war, for example, it is likely that this would also affect the integrity of LEUB.

At the same time, it is consistent with Kazakhstan's stand as the poster child for the fight to curb nuclear military proliferation worldwide. After all, the whole point of the LEUB is to allow member states to pursue nuclear power generation without the need for uranium enrichment facilities, the kind of facilities that make “the powers that be" very nervous.

LEU is a fundamental commodity in today's world. It is the basic ingredient for the production of nuclear fuel, and it is made through the enrichment of uranium to allow it to produce more energy, by increasing the ability of its atoms to heat up. The LEU stored at LEUB will be enriched at 4.95%, adapted to a common light water reactor but much below the level of enrichment necessary for weapons-grade uranium.

Kazakhstan's forward-looking attitude and support for international cooperation regarding nuclear power security and nuclear weapons non-proliferation is however, not new.

For all the fuss about a nuclear arms race and the fears about military uses for nuclear power generation programs, the great elephant in the room in the case of Iran, there are actually fewer nations with nuclear military capabilities than in the past. Several nations have, over time, decided to voluntarily destroy their nuclear arsenal or abandon their nuclear military programs, including South Africa, Belarus, and Ukraine.

One of the first to do so was Kazakhstan. The center for nuclear testing and research within the Soviet Union and home to the world's worst radiation hotspot, the Semipalatinsk Test Centre, Kazakhstan was left with one of the biggest nuclear arsenals in the world, counted at 1,400 nuclear warheads in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The cost of maintaining the arsenal was, however, so high that the government decided to dismantle it. The last warhead was destroyed in 2005.

Since its independence, the country has been one of the biggest promoters of nuclear security in the world. In December 7 2015, in a historic move, the United Nations General Council adopted the Universal Declaration on the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World, proposed by none other than Kazakhstan.

Now, the hosting of the new LEUB represents a step forward for Kazakhstan's role as a promoter of energy security worldwide. This storage infrastructure will join the International Uranium Enrichment Center, a similar facility in the Russian town of Angarsk, also operated by IAEA, and another bank in the US.

While Kazakhstan will bear the costs of maintaining the facility, the project is part of an international effort that counts on the sponsorship of the US, the EU, Norway, Kuwait, the UAE, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

With production standing at 23,800 tonnes in 2015, Kazakhstani uranium comprised nearly 40% of the world's production. Since March 2015, a glut in the global supply of uranium has since led prices to collapse by over 50%. In reaction to this, Kazakhstan decided to cut its production of uranium ore by 10%, which represents 3% of global production. The prices have since rebounded by over 20%. Peculiarly, since 1999 there has been no active nuclear reactor in Kazakhstan.


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