Sixteen nations signed a U.S.-initiated pact on Sunday to help meet soaring world energy demand over coming decades by developing nuclear technology less prone to diversion into atomic bomb-making.
Eleven nations joined the five nuclear fuel-producing powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Japan -- which formed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in a GNEP statement of principles at a ministerial ceremony in Vienna.
GNEP aims to launch proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors supplied by a global fuel bank meant to discourage nations from building sensitive fuel enrichment facilities on their own soil.
That technological threshold will probably take many years to reach, diplomats and analysts say.
It was given impetus by Iran's quest to enrich uranium despite U.N. resolutions ordering a halt over suspicions Tehran is trying to build bombs, not generate electricity as it says, and by North Korea's stealthy "break-out" to weapons capability.
"We may be late doing this. It certainly would have been better to do this 10 years ago than now," U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told reporters. "But I don't know that the proliferation genie is out of the bottle yet."
GNEP proponents say global demand for nuclear energy will almost double by 2030, propelled by high oil and gas prices and alarm about climate change linked to burning of fossil fuels.
NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY CONCERNS
The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief welcomed GNEP in part because it did not seem to undermine national sovereignty on energy, a concern that has hurt various proposals for a more secure multilateral system of atomic energy supply in the past.
"This has been one of the issues that has created a lot of anxiety. So this is very much an improvement and should encourage more countries to join (up)," said Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
The statement of principles said partner states "would not give up any rights." But concern still simmers in developing states, and even in some industrialized nations, that they might lose some sovereignty on atomic energy options.
South Africa is considering reviving a former uranium enrichment program, while Argentina, Canada and Australia have suggested they might start their own as well.
In a closed session after the ceremony, ministers agreed to set up working groups on creating reliable nuclear fuel services and infrastructure to support new technology, and decided to admit new members by consensus only, an official present said.
GNEP, which will be debated at a 144-nation IAEA conference starting on Monday, faces technological, financial and political cooperation hurdles before it brings tangible results.
Among major challenges will be developing affordable nuclear plants with fuel-reprocessing technology that would not yield separated plutonium, the commonest ingredient in atom bombs.
"GNEP is based on unproven technologies. It will take many years for the promise to be fulfilled," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
New GNEP partners ranged from Australia to Kazakhstan and Jordan. Twenty-one nations were present as observers including Canada, Egypt, Libya, Argentina, Brazil and major EU countries.