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Nuclear Energy: Proliferation

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What support from other countries there has been for the United Kingdom’s proposal for a uranium enrichment bond as a means of tackling the proliferation risks arising from the worldwide growth in civil nuclear power.

My Lords, there is widespread support for the development of a viable regime of multilateral nuclear approaches, of which assurances of supply are an integral part. We have approached about 20 countries that are considering developing nuclear energy. Many have shown interest in the UK proposal for an enrichment bond. We have also received support from the IAEA. We are now building support for our proposal through bilateral and multilateral channels, including within the IAEA, and will co-host an international conference in April to engage with potential recipient and supplier countries.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer, which demonstrates some progress on the matter. However, it is over a year since I asked a similar Question in the House and very little has actually happened. This is enormously important, as I think the noble Lord recognises. In 2006, the Government put their proposal for a uranium enrichment bond to the general conference of the IAEA. Can we be assured that that proposal is still on the table as one of those to be considered, or has it been overtaken by more recent proposals? We are trying with all these things to ensure that there is control against proliferation of nuclear energy. Instead of a continual process of new proposals, it is time that decisions were taken.

My Lords, I sympathise with the noble Lord’s impatience on this, as it is an enormously important priority. I am glad to say that in April there will be an international meeting, co-hosted by us, Germany and the Netherlands, which we have invited countries interested in this issue to attend. We are assured that the IAEA will, later in the year, give its opinion on the 10 proposals that exist, which we hope will allow decisions to be made and implementation to begin.

My Lords, I declare that I have been following a proposal to the Jordanian Government by Rio Tinto, a British organisation. Does a nuclear co-operation agreement exist with Jordan? If not, given the close relationship between our two countries, not least in security matters, is it not appropriate that we should propose one to His Majesty and work on it with immediate effect?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct: Jordan is a reliable ally on this as on so many things. We are certainly looking at the possibility of such an agreement. I know that the noble Lord is concerned that countries such as France and Russia may be ahead of us in this regard. We do not think so. Technical issues confront us all and it would be much easier to deal with these issues within an IAEA-approved formula, but I can assure him that British companies will not be at a disadvantage.

My Lords, in light of the large number of proposals now being made for new civil nuclear power stations, not least in the developing world, does the Minister agree that it is vital, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, implied, that there should be an international architecture capable of providing controls over that civil nuclear energy so that it will not be diverted to nuclear weapons purposes? Are the United Kingdom Government prepared to support the necessary strengthening of the staff and finances of the IAEA so that the agency can be part of such a new international architecture?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely correct that the rise of nuclear energy, driven by environmental and climate change concerns, is transforming this from a narrow security issue to one where whole new challenges are thrown up as the world turns to nuclear energy. Like her, I see the strengthening of the IAEA as probably the best mechanism for providing a suitable environment of safeguards and checks. However, that may well need to occur in the context of a renewal of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which at the moment suffers from a loss of authority in many respects.

My Lords, my noble friend asked whether the proposal was still on the table. Is it still on the table—yes or no?

My Lords, I was pleased to hear the Minister say that there is to be a multilateral conference or meeting on this in a couple of months. Will that be strictly a Government-to-Government meeting or will the private sector be invited? Will other multilateral organisations also be present?

My Lords, I will need to get back to my noble friend on exactly who is invited, but we want the broadest support possible, as we see it as preparing the ground for our proposal to triumph at the subsequent IAEA deliberations. Therefore, I suspect that any suggestions on wider attendance will be well received.

My Lords, I am happy to hear the Minister say that Germany and the Netherlands are co-hosting this conference. Can we be assured that other members of the EU have given it their active support and that Japan and, above all, the United States actively support this approach?

Yes, my Lords, but, as I said, there are 10 proposals. For example, the United States is very interested in a lower-grade uranium enrichment bank as an alternative proposal. We need to sort this out and have one or two proposals, either alone or combined, to become the path down which the whole international community can proceed in agreement.