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    Expert Workshop Series
    The Future of Commercial Uranium Enrichment and Multilateral Enrichment Facilities
    January 23, 2014

    While uranium enrichment is a necessary step in the production of fuel for light water reactors, there are nevertheless proliferation concerns regarding the technology because commercial operations can potentially be abused to produce weapons-usable material. Accordingly, there have been numerous proposals since the dawn of the nuclear age to place commercial enrichment facilities under multinational ownership and operation to address proliferation risks and enhance transparency. A number of multilateral enrichment projects have already been established, most notably by Urenco—a consortium involving the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In 2007, Russia founded the International Uranium Enrichment Center (IUEC) in Angarsk, which has attracted involvement by countries such as Ukraine, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. These multilateral arrangements seek to satisfy the nuclear fuel requirements of a broad group of countries deploying power reactors, while also limiting the diffusion of sensitive enrichment technologies and facilities internationally.

    Currently, there is overcapacity in the global enrichment market, largely stemming from shutdowns in Japan and Europe. While the enrichment market has functioned well in meeting the world’s nuclear fuel needs thus far, current trends indicate the possibility of market distortions arising in the future. Russia, Urenco, and Areva collectively possess a significant majority of global market share, and there has been a steady loss of diversity in suppliers and technologies over the last few decades. Although collusion is not a foregone conclusion, decreased competition could nevertheless spur the emergence of other enrichment ventures, including cooperation by buyer states to establish multinational facilities. Countries with large civilian programs, active domestic new build and export commitments, and substantial natural uranium reserves would be excellent candidates to either host or participate in a multilateral enrichment facility.

    Given its growth projections in nuclear power, the Asian region could be the site for a multilateral enrichment facility outside of the traditional enrichment countries. A number of countries in Asia, such as South Korea, have sizeable reactor fleets that could justify investment into the development of an enrichment capacity. Placing a future enrichment facility in Asia under multilateral control, possibly in concert with a more proliferation resistant enrichment technology (such as ion exchange enrichment), would help address regional proliferation concerns and potentially allay political tensions. If nuclear power expands according to current estimates and the treaty and political hurdles in establishing a multilateral facility can be overcome, multinational enrichment may become a reality in Asia.