Watchdog recommends U.S. freeze nuclear fuel bank funding

Congressional investigators and the State Department are battling over whether the United States should continue funding a nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan.

The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, says the government has failed to develop a long-term plan for the International Atomic Energy Agency bank or address issues like redundancy that would protect Americans’ investment.

“Two years after the IAEA Board of Governors voted to approve the nuclear fuel bank, the agency has not yet developed a plan for the bank’s long-term operation and funding,” the GAO said in a recent report that recommended the U.S. suspend funding for the project until further planning and study can be conducted.

So far, the National Nuclear Security Administration has donated $50 million to the program — by far more than any other country — and wants to continue to support the fuel bank despite the GAO’s concerns. The purpose of the bank, and others like it, is to supply the world with low-enriched uranium if market supply is ever disrupted.

As the government agency in charge of international relations, “[The State Department] commented that it believes a resource assessment or long-term planning for the nuclear security program is not possible because IAEA assists member countries by responding to specific requests that cannot be anticipated and then addresses those requests based on staffing and resource availability,” the report said.

The State Department argues that conducting studies on the project “would be a questionable use of the [IAEA] resources.” The GAO counters that some studies are already complete but have not been released to investing governments.

Duplication and increased pricing for uranium are other key concerns: the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom all have nuclear fuel banks of their own that mirror the goals of the IAEA bank in Kazakhstan, the GAO noted. And that raises questions whether new competition from the IAEA bank might cause prices to rise.

The State Department and GAO agree it is unlikely the new fuel bank will “flood” the market, but the department said in the report that “some fuel supplier countries have expressed concern that IAEA’s planned fuel bank could disrupt the market and affect fuel prices.”

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