By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - Member states of the U.N. nuclear watchdog approved Thursday a new fuel supply plan meant to help countries develop atomic energy without increasing the risk of weapons proliferation.
Dozens of states, some in the conflict-prone Middle East, are considering launching nuclear power programs to meet growing energy demand and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
But the same technology that is used to make fuel for civilian nuclear reactors can also provide bomb material if refined to a very high degree.
To reduce the need for aspiring nuclear power states to enrich uranium themselves to generate electricity, several initiatives have been put forward in recent years designed to ensure that their fuel supplies would not be suddenly halted.
In the latest such step, a British fuel assurance proposal backed by the United States and Russia won clear support in the 35-nation governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with 26 states voting in favor and none against.
Some developing states have in the past voiced concern such schemes may in part be an attempt to limit their right to establish their own sovereign nuclear energy capabilities, even if Western diplomats say this would not be the case.
It "would not change or undermine a state's rights to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes ... in any way whatsoever," British envoy Simon Smith said before the vote, in which South Africa, Brazil and six other states abstained.
ATOM FUEL BANKS
Unlike two projects previously approved by the board, the British proposal does not involve setting up a uranium reserve which states could tap into if their supplies were cut off.
Instead, the governments of the supplier and the customer would sign a bilateral agreement, to guarantee that shipments would not be interrupted for non-commercial reasons.
The IAEA would throw its weight behind the plan by co-signing the accord, effectively giving the customer state a clean bill of health from a proliferation point of view.
Countries under investigation by the IAEA over suspicions regarding their nuclear activities, currently Iran and Syria, would not be able to benefit from such fuel guarantees.
The IAEA board late last year approved a U.S.-backed fuel supply plan, under which the U.N. agency would run a reserve of low-enriched uranium (LEU). In 2009, it backed an offer by major uranium producer Russia to host such a facility.
Iran's disputed enrichment program, which the West fears is covertly aimed at developing nuclear weapons, has helped push the idea up the agenda after decades on the political back-burner. Iran says it only seeks to produce electricity.
Iran's nuclear envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, made clear he was unhappy with "proposals on assurance of supply which have created polarization and political tensions."
Mark Hibbs, nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the schemes could influence a country's decision whether to launch its own enrichment work.
"If a country is seriously undecided on whether to enrich or not, this will matter," Hibbs said. "But if it really wants a nuclear weapons option, then it won't matter. It depends entirely on the intention of the country concerned."
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)