Picture by: Eskom | Koeberg Nuclear Power Station South Africa, is keen to develop new uranium mines in the country to support prospective nuclear plants - Photo: 2014

Africa Asked To Address Nuke Proliferation Risks

By Jaya Ramachandran | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

STOCKHOLM (IDN) – African countries, which are party to the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty of Pelindaba and already contribute a significant share of the uranium used in the peaceful nuclear industry worldwide, have been asked to develop “a full understanding of their extractive industries, to avoid the risk that uranium will be supplied from unconventional sources – for example, as a by-product of other mining activities”.

Such potential hazards can be addressed by making proper and up-to-date physical security arrangements at the sites where uranium is being mined and while it is being transported, says a new study by SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Uranium production is an important part of the African economy, with Niger, Namibia and South Africa creating up to 18% of the world’s annual production. Many African countries produce uranium or have untapped uranium ore deposits.

The study titled Africa and the Global Market in Natural Uranium – From Proliferation Risk to Non-proliferation Opportunity points out that little attention has been paid to the limited, but not negligible, nuclear proliferation risks associated with the mining of uranium. As the global market for uranium changes and as more African countries become uranium suppliers, there is a need for them to be vigilant of those risks.

Authored by Ian Anthony and Lina Grip, this is the first study to look at the proliferation risks associated with uranium extraction in Africa and to suggest practical ways in which African states can act to mitigate them.

The authors argue that, “as countries of proliferation concern achieve proficiency in uranium conversion and enrichment, restricting easy access to uranium could be one part of a comprehensive and integrated approach to non-proliferation across the nuclear fuel cycle”.

International cooperation

Officially known as the SIPRI Policy Brief, the study recommends international cooperation by initiating dialogue with converters and suppliers of enrichment services. In particular, it says, uranium-supplier countries, perhaps working in cooperation with each other, should initiate a dialogue with converters and suppliers of enrichment services to better understand how those actors meet their legal obligations and manage proliferation risk.

“A potential framework would be to invite converters and enrichment service providers to participate in special sessions of regional or subregional meetings that are already being organized by African nuclear regulators,” says the policy brief, adding: “Another potential framework would be to make contact with, for example, the Nuclear Suppliers Group to explore the opportunities for dialogue on specific subjects relevant to proliferation risk management.”

Those discussions, the authors suggest, could take up the questions: What are the legal obligations of converters and enrichment service providers? How do they understand those obligations? What procedures are in place to make them effective? What procedures exist in countries that have nuclear weapons to ensure separation of civil and military activities?

Initiate dialogue

The study also stresses the need to initiate dialogue with uranium suppliers located in nuclear weapon-free zones. It argues: As African countries increasingly explore commercial uranium supply arrangements with countries in Asia and the Middle East, it will be important to develop a common understanding among uranium-supplier countries about how they interpret their obligations under current nuclear weapon-free zone treaties.

Although the language related to conditions for supply in the nuclear weapon-free zone treaties is similar or, in some cases, identical, their parties nevertheless seem to reach different conclusions about  whether or not commercial agreements with, for example, India can be implemented with acceptable levels of risk.

An international conference could bring together uranium suppliers (current and anticipated) to discuss their interpretations of treaty obligations, with the final objective of a harmonized approach to conditions for supply, says the study, and pleads for discussing at the regional level current practices for key proliferation risk management policies and practices

“African countries engaged in uranium supply could benefit themselves and each other through regular discussion on the subject of how they manage proliferation risk. This can also be a valuable opportunity for information sharing and the development of standards tailored to specific conditions found in Africa,” the policy brief says.

It notes that special sessions of the regular meetings already taking place in the context of, for example, the Treaty of Pelindaba, the network of African nuclear regulators and on arms control under the umbrella of the African Union could offer opportunities to convene such discussions.

“A topic that could be taken up at an early stage of such meetings is the need for a comprehensive understanding of uranium supply from Africa, taking into account the unconventional sources. A joint analysis and a comprehensive picture of unconventional sources of uranium in Africa would be a valuable outcome from discussions,” authors of the policy brief say.

Proliferation risks

A second topic that could be taken up at an early stage, they suggest, is assessing proliferation risks that may arise out of uranium supplied for non-nuclear purposes.

The study further proposes convening the group of uranium suppliers and prospective uranium suppliers at periodic meetings to discuss proliferation risks and risk mitigation. At present, there is no forum where uranium suppliers meet to discuss proliferation risk management. Most African uranium-supplier countries participate in the IAEA Annual Conference.

“This could be a good opportunity to convene as many uranium-supplier countries as possible for an annual discussion of current tendencies and developments of mutual interest,” says the study. Examples of issues that could usefully be included on the agenda of such meetings include exchange of information on current practices in, for example, administration of safeguards, national implementation of physical protection obligations and effective export controls.

Meetings of this kind would be an opportunity to inform uranium-supplier states of the latest developments in guidance and principles of best practice on, for example, conditions to attach to permits, conditions for granting licences, physical protection, and safe and secure transport. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 10, 2014]

Picture by: Eskom | Koeberg Nuclear Power Station South Africa, is keen to develop new uranium mines in the country to support prospective nuclear plants

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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