Skip to main content

Energy: Nuclear

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their reaction to the pledge byMr Warren Buffett of $50 million to establish a nuclear fuel bank run by the International Atomic Energy Agency; and whether they are considering making a matching contribution of their own if the proposal for the nuclear fuel bank is widely accepted.

My Lords, the international community is actively seeking ways to ensure that the development of nuclear energy does not increase opportunities for the proliferation of sensitive technology. The Nuclear Threat Initiative put forward an interesting proposal at a special session of the IAEA last month. At the same meeting, the United Kingdom also put forward an innovative suggestion for an enrichment bond. The IAEA is currently considering these and other proposals, and its conclusions will be important in guiding future decisions.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Is he prepared to put some of these proposals in the Library of the House so that we can be better informed about them? Does he agree that an international system of the sort being explored is by far the best way of heading off the pressure for new enrichment plants, which are the short cut to proliferation, and that the proposal by Mr Warren Buffett is perhaps one way of addressing the fear that countries with civil nuclear will be at a commercial disadvantage vis-à-vis countries that already have enrichment capacity?

My Lords, I am delighted to announce that we will put the documents on the bond in the Library of the House so that all Members can see them. I also think that Warren Buffett has made a major contribution, as has the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in the role that he played on the high-level panel.

Earlier this year, the UK, together with the US, France, Russia, the Netherlands and Germany, presented to the IAEA board of governors a proposal to provide reliable access to nuclear fuel of exactly the kind described in the Question. Since then, we have been working hard to demonstrate how that would work in practice. The UK’s enrichment bond idea is a bold and, I believe, practical proposal that would provide recipient states with a genuinely credible guarantee of the supply of low-enrichment uranium without the risk of weapons proliferation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the proposal has much merit to it, particularly if one is talking about an international and independent nuclear fuel bank? Does he also agree that the future is bound to involve a major expansion of carbon-free civil nuclear power if we are serious about lowering carbon in the atmosphere; that in those circumstances there is bound to be a huge advance in civil nuclear power around the world; that the inspection system, which we have lived with since the Second World War, is not working very well; and that this alternative of an independent nuclear fuel bank to service and facilitate the use of civil nuclear energy around the world might be a much better approach? So could we have not merely putting the documents in the Library but positive thinking inside Her Majesty’s Government and possible support for an initiative based on these ideas?

My Lords, I certainly agree that the ideas are important and that they may signal a much more productive way forward than we have had. Placing the documents in the Library just makes sure that everybody has seen the proposals so far asthey have developed. I completely agree that the widespread development of enrichment capabilities leads to the threat of further nuclear proliferation. If states can be assured of reliable access to nuclear fuel, they should and, we hope, will choose not to develop enrichment and processing capabilities of their own. The bond that I have described is one part of a mechanism that in practice—it must be a practical solution—will lead to that outcome.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative board, to which the Buffett proposal was originally made. I wish to press the Minister a little further on the matter. Does he see any conflict between the proposal on the enrichment bonds, which I am delighted to hear has been put forward by the UK Government, and the concept of an LEU bank? That would enable the IAEA to approach a great many countries that have highly enriched uranium, often in a research reactor or something of that kind, with a proposal for substitution by lowly enriched uranium, which cannot be turned into nuclear weapons. Will he consider carefully whether the United Kingdom might support the Buffett initiative, as well as pressing its own case? The two seem to me to be helpful to one another and not in conflict.

My Lords, I do not think that there will be a difficulty in evaluating the Buffett initiative alongside other initiatives. We are talking about different kinds of nuclear material that could not in practice all be stored in one place; nor would that be desirable. Therefore, we are bound to have different arrangements; some of them will be virtual arrangements, which would make the supply of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes practicable, and some will deal with near-weapons-grade materials. We need to look at all that range and make sure that the arrangements are appropriate for the whole range.

My Lords, the Minister will beaware that the Buffett proposal—the $50 million—is contingent on one or more countries either coming up with $100 million of matching funds or jump-starting the fuel bank with low-enriched uranium to that value. What are our stocks of low-enriched uranium and to what value would we be able to contribute to such a bank?

My Lords, I am not briefed on our stocks of lowly enriched uranium, but I shall ensure that that information is made available in so far as it is not classified material.