Fund Aims for Central Uranium Supply

Investment guru Warren Buffett, media mogul Ted Turner and former Sen. Sam Nunn say they will donate $50 million toward a centralized supply of enriched uranium for nuclear energy purposes. Nunn tells Scott Simon about an effort meant to discourage nations from pursuing technology that could also lead to nuclear weapons.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, cutting the grass on public land, if you please. But first, it's been a week featuring private attempts to solve global problems. In New York, Bill Clinton convened his second annual conference to raise funds to fight poverty, religious conflict and other huge issues.

The former president watched a procession of dignitaries and celebrities from Laura Bush to Bill and Melinda Gates step up to make specific pledges. British entrepreneur Richard Branson said he would give $3 billion over the next 10 years, all the profits of his Virgin travel industries, to reduce global warming.

Earlier this week in Vienna, businessmen Warren Buffet and Ted Turner and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn announced a plan to contribute $50 million to help bankroll a nuclear fuel repository. The idea is to build a stockpile of enriched uranium for nations seeking atomic energy so they don't have to make it themselves and risk nuclear weapons proliferation.

Senator Nunn, the head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, joins us from the studios Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Senator, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SAM NUNN (Former U.S. Senator, Georgia): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Now, the condition, as you mentioned, at least one of them, is that you are asking U.N. member states to come up with another $100 million.

Mr. NUNN: That's right. We want a 2-to-1 match. It'll take 100 to $150 million to provide the threshold-type credible backup reserves of low-enriched uranium that we envision and that we hope will be a reality within a couple of years.

So two conditions are a 2-to-1 match, and the second condition, of course, is the International Atomic Energy Commission set up the reserve and the provisions of the reserve. There are a lot of details for them to work out, but it's up to them to make those decisions.

SIMON: How would this repository work?

Mr. NUNN: It would be a backup last resort. First of all, there's the marketplace and there's an adequate supply of low-enriched uranium in the marketplace today. But a lot of countries that are now thinking about nuclear energy do not have confidence that there will not be political conditions attached to the sale of that uranium.

There are six exporters primarily in the world - U.S., France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and the Netherlands. And based on the last 20, 30 years' experience, a lot of countries in the world, rightly or wrongly, perceive that there could be political conditions attached. So they view their supply of uranium as being something they themselves want to be sure of. And they have a sovereign right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium to a low-enriched uranium state for power purposes, and that's what we want to discourage.

Because if everyone exercises or even many new nations exercise their sovereign right to enrich to a low uranium state, then it'll be a very dangerous world, because it's very easy to go from low-enriched uranium, which is about four and a half percent enriched, up to weapon-grade material, which is a higher level of enrichment.

SIMON: Did the urgency of Iran spur this idea?

Mr. NUNN: I'm not sure that it would have deterred either Iran or North Korea, but it would've been a powerful tool that we don't have available now and could've helped and still might in either or both of those cases. But there are a lot of other non-weapon states and non-enrichment states.

Countries like Brazil and Argentina and South Africa and Australia and Kazakhstan and even Canada are thinking about going into enrichment. We want them to make their own choice, but we want to give them every incentive to not go into enrichment.

SIMON: Former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman or the Nuclear Threat Initiative, speaking with us from Atlanta. Thanks very much for being with us, Senator.

Mr. NUNN: Thank you, Scott. One added thought here. The stakes are very high, because if we have enrichment all over the world, we're going to have a great likelihood of weapon-grade material getting in the hands of terrorists, and that would change the world if we had a nuclear explosion.

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