Safeguards and security risks at the (very) front end of the nuclear fuel cycle
Historically, there have been limited international controls at the very front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, which consists of mining, processing, transportation, and conversion of natural uranium. However, an evolving framework of nuclear-security treaties along with International Atomic Energy Agency clarifications of the materials subject to its safeguards obligations are increasing the coverage of source materials, raising the question of how new and traditional uranium suppliers should handle safeguards and security in the production of uranium. We use a risk framework to assess the likelihood and consequences of different proliferation risks. Although the consequences for proliferation are generally low, risks to the very front end are different for safeguards (state diversion) and nuclear-materials security (unauthorized removal by non-state actors). For safeguards risks, cases of diversion or undeclared activities are concentrated at conversion facilities, while theft or trafficking of front-end material represents a relatively small percentage of total security incidents, concentrated in countries with lower levels of nuclear-materials security. We conclude that safeguards and security obligations should be commensurate with the risks. An appropriate response should involve a risk-based, graduated approach to nuclear security and a flexible, more clearly framed approach to safeguards.