With a view to discourage countries pursuing nuclear energy from establishing individual enrichment and reprocessing facilities, the International Atomic Energy Agency has called for setting up a nuclear fuel bank to provide enriched nuclear fuel to countries like India for peaceful purposes.
''If every country had an enrichment factory, they would each be able to develop nuclear weapons in a matter of months. That means they only are a few months away from a nuclear weapon,'' IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said while addressing an annual conference on non-proliferation sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday.
Advocating the setting up of what he described as a multi-national fuel bank, the IAEA chief said participating countries would be required to pledge not to develop dual-use facilities in exchange for the needed nuclear fuel.
''Every country that would like to get the fuel, the technology or reactor, will get that, but not necessarily developing their own enrichment facility. And assurance of supply mechanism should be reliable, apolitical and based solely on non-proliferation criteria,'' the Nobel Peace laureate said.
The IAEA would manage the fuel bank and ensure that participants follow certain guidelines that will include a ten-year global moratorium on establishing new enrichment or reprocessing facilities, he explained.
He said so far reactions to the proposal have been encouraging, and that there have been initial commitments from the world's two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia.
''This is material coming out of weapons, frankly, from the military sector. So, it's a good way to put it to good use. Use it as part of the fuel bank,'' the IAEA chief said.
ElBaradei said Russia plans to provide an unspecified amount of fuel for the bank.
US Energy Secretary Sam Bodman detailed the US commitment of highly-enriched uranium, or HEU, which could be converted into low-enriched uranium, or LEU, which is used to generate power.
''Last month, I announced plans to reserve up to 17 metric tonnes of HEU to help establish a fuel reserve, to support nuclear supply assurances. When blended down, under the IAEA verification, this material would result in approximately 290 metric tonnes of LEU, or enough fuel for 10 reactor core reloads,'' Bodman said.
However, the one key challenge is how to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, while making sure that nuclear power does not provide a cover for a covert nuclear weapons program, Bodman said.
The move would go a long way in ensuring that countries pursuing peaceful nuclear programmes would not be tempted to develop dual-use facilities and can avoid suspicion of pursuing a weapons programme.
The issue lies at the heart of the problem because reprocessing and enrichment facilities also have military uses, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Joseph Cirincione observed.
Rapid economic growth around the world, especially in China and India, is leading to a growing demand for energy, which is why many policymakers are increasingly looking at nuclear power to help meet some of their country's energy demand.