Choking Uranium Markets to Stop Nuclear Weapons

Making nuclear weapons requires access to materials—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—that do not exist in nature in a weapons-usable form.   The most important suppliers of nuclear technology have recently agreed guidelines to restrict access to the most sensitive industrial items, in the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Nevertheless, the number of countries proficient in these industrial processes has increased over time, and it is now questionable whether a strategy based on close monitoring of technology ‘choke points’ is by itself a reliable barrier to nuclear proliferation.  Time to tighten regulation of the uranium market?

Not all the states that have developed a complex nuclear fuel cycle have naturally abundant uranium. This has created a global market for uranium that is relatively free—particularly compared with the market for sensitive technologies….

Many African states have experienced increased investment in their uranium extractive sectors in recent years. Many, though not all, have signed and ratified the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Pelindaba) Treaty, which entered into force in 2009. Furthermore, in recent years, the relevant countries have often worked with the IAEA to introduce an Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreement with the agency…

One proliferation risk inherent in the current system is that inadequate or falsified information connected to what appear to be legitimate transactions will facilitate uranium acquisition by countries that the producer country would not wish to supply….

A second risk is that uranium ore concentrate (UOC) is diverted, either from the site where it was processed or during transportation, so the legitimate owners no longer have control over it. UOC is usually produced at facilities close to mines—often at the mining site itself—to avoid the cost and inconvenience of transporting large quantities of very heavy ore in raw form to a processing plant.,,,UOC is usually packed into steel drums that are loaded into standard shipping containers for onward movement by road, rail or sea for further processing. The loss of custody over relatively small quantities of UOC represents a serious risk if diversion takes place regularly. The loss of even one full standard container during transport would be a serious proliferation risk by itself. There is thus a need for physical protection of the ore concentrate to reduce the risk of diversion at these stages.

A third risk is that some uranium extraction activity is not covered by the existing rules. For example, uranium extraction can be a side activity connected to gold mining or the production of phosphates. Regulations should cover all activities that could lead to uranium extraction, not only those where uranium extraction is the main stated objective.

Restricting access to natural uranium could be an important aspect of the global efforts to obstruct the spread of nuclear weapons

Excerpts, from  Ian Anthony and Lina Grip, The global market in natural uranium—from proliferation risk to non-proliferation opportunity, SIPRI, Apr. 13, 2013

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