North Korea has started building a fence around the site of its first-ever nuclear test, a move U.S. and South Korean authorities believe may be to monitor the detonation's effects and restore the area, a news report said Sunday.
South Korea has received intelligence that a barbed-wire fence is being erected near the nuclear site at the small town of Punggyeri in the North's northeastern county of Kilju, the South's Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified South Korean official as saying.
The North is believed to have conducted the nuclear test detonation there on Oct. 9, 2006. The communist country was also boosting the number of personnel at the site, Yonhap said.
South Korean and U.S. authorities presume that the move is aimed at analyzing the outcome of the test and restoring the site, as North Korea believes the area is now free from radioactive contamination, the official was quoted as saying.
But another unidentified South Korean official said that "activities spotted at Punggyeri are usual" ones, according to Yonhap. He did not give any further details.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it won't make any official comment on the report, saying it was an intelligence matter. And the National Intelligence Service, South Korea's spy agency, said it could not immediately confirm the report.
The size of the underground test blast was considered relatively small, with the U.S. government estimating its yield at less than a kiloton. Each kiloton is equal to the force produced by 1,000 tons of TNT.
Nonetheless, the test prompted the U.S. to soften its previous hardline stance toward North Korea to help facilitate progress in six-nation arms talks on ending the North's nuclear program.
The North shut down its main nuclear reactor in July and pledged recently to disable its main nuclear facilities and declare all its nuclear programs by year's end in return for economic aid and political concessions.
A U.S. team of nuclear experts has been in North Korea since Thursday to map out a disablement plan. But it remains unclear whether the North will eventually allow outside nuclear inspectors to have access to the nuclear test site as it moves toward denuclearization.
1. Russia's Putin Hunts Diplomatic Solution in Iran
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Russian President Vladimir Putin will show his preference for dialogue with Iran when he visits Tehran on Tuesday, amid calls from the West for stronger pressure on Iran to curb suspected plans for a nuclear bomb.
Putin, the first Kremlin chief to visit Iran since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin went in 1943, will formally be in Tehran for a summit of Caspian Sea states.
But a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could give the Kremlin leader a chance to seek a peaceful compromise over Tehran's nuclear programme and to demonstrate his independence from Washington on Middle East issues.
"Putin is going to Iran to show the importance of continuing diplomacy," Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Putin will tell Ahmadinejad that Russia accepts Iran's right to use nuclear energy but wants it to open up its nuclear programme to international inspectors to prove it is peaceful, Peskov added.
The West suspects Iran wants to develop atomic weapons under the cover of a civil nuclear programme. Iran says its programme is intended to generate power so it can export more oil and gas.
Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, has backed two sets of mild sanctions against Iran to encourage it to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But Moscow, alarmed by rumors that the United States could launch a military strike on Iran, says it will not back further sanctions unless the IAEA says Iran is not cooperating or proves it is working on weapons.
"We have no real data to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans. But we agree that Iran's programmes must be transparent," Putin said after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week.
Critics say Moscow has other reasons for wanting to soft-pedal the Iran issue. These may include a large contract to build a nuclear power plant at Bushehr in Iran, as well as lucrative military deals.
Another is that a standoff with the West over Iran would fit in with Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy aimed at building Russia's profile, particularly among developing nations, in the post-Cold War world.
The European Union is expected to step up pressure on Iran next week, warning Tehran it will face tougher sanctions unless it halts uranium enrichment, which is viewed as its most suspicious activity by the West.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West after talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday against sanctioning Iran bypassing the United Nations.
But he also pledged that Putin would in Tehran "continue the current line of work with the Iranian leadership, which reflects the collective position of the Six (states in talks with Iran) and the U.N. Security Council".
The six nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear programme are the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain. Putin's visit to Tehran has been repeatedly postponed since 2005.
Russia argues that excessive pressure against Tehran could be counter-productive, as well as destabilizing the mainly Muslim region next to its southern borders. But economic reasons are also important for Moscow.
Analysts say the Bushehr plant, whose completion Russia has postponed quoting technical problems, could become a major bargaining chip.
"I think Putin may propose to Iranians giving up uranium enrichment in exchange for Russian fuel for Bushehr," Rajab Safarov, head of the Centre of Iranian Studies, said.
Ahead of Tehran, Putin will visit Germany on Sunday and Monday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and a traditional business conference known as the "St Petersburg dialogue".
This is the final confirmation, if any were needed, that the UPA government has put the nuclear deal on hold in favour of keeping the government alive. Top government sources said India will soon formally tell the US that it will not be able to take the next step on the nuclear deal.
The sources said that the UPA government, in the aftermath of the October 9 meeting with the Left parties, will convey to the US that it will not be approaching the IAEA for a safeguards agreement.
This also makes it plain that on October 22, when the UPA-Left panel is supposed to hold its last round of discussions on the deal, the government will not even try to persuade the Left to allow the negotiations with IAEA.
According to the timeline for completing the rest of the nuclear deal, India has to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA working up to an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers´┐Ż Group (NSG) and a final approval of the US Congress. That process now stands scuttled.
After trying to persuade the Left, without success, the PM and Sonia Gandhi publicly gave in on Friday, saving the government by jettisoning the nuclear deal.
IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei was also informed by the UPA leadership during his visit here that India will not formally approach the UN nuclear watchdog for a safeguards agreement.
The government switched gears abruptly. Till early last week, the government was clearly preparing to take the next steps on the deal ´┐Ż the term of India´┐Żs ambassador to the IAEA, Sheelkant Sharma, had been extended by a few months and the DAE chief, Anil Kakodkar, had been given an extra two years.
PM Manmohan Singh, who had reasons to be upset over the setback to the deal on which he had staked so much, did not interact with the media during the nine-and-a-half hour long flight to the Nigerian capital.
1. IAEA Unaware of ´┐ŻUndeclared Nuclear Facility´┐Ż in Syria
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The UN nuclear watchdog said Monday it had no information about any "undeclared nuclear facility in Syria" and it was investigating media reports that such a site had been the target of a recent Israeli air strike.
The International Atomic Energy Agency "has no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria and no information about recent reports," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
"We would obviously investigate any relevant information coming our way. The IAEA Secretariat expects any country having information about nuclear-related activities in another country to provide that information to the IAEA."
The IAEA was "in contact with the Syrian authorities to verify the authenticity of these reports," Fleming added.
According to The New York Times, Israel bombed a site in Syria last month that Israeli and US intelligence believe was a partly built nuclear reactor possibly modeled after one in North Korea.
Citing unnamed US and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports, the report said it appeared Israel carried out the September 6 raid to demonstrate its determination to snuff out even a nascent nuclear project in a neighboring state.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has said only that the target was an "unused military building" and that the bombs hit "nothing of consequence."
The newspaper quoted a US official as saying that there was little doubt within the administration of President George W. Bush that a nuclear facility was indeed being built.
"There wasn't a lot of debate about the evidence," the paper quoted a US official as saying of the discussions between the US and Israel.
"There was a lot of debate about how to respond to it."
The facility that the Israelis struck in Syria appears to have been much further from completion than the Osirak nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in Iraq in 1981, the paper said.
Officials said it would have been years before the Syrians could have used the reactor to produce the spent nuclear fuel that could, through a series of additional steps, be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium.
North Korea has long provided military assistance to Syria, but any help in building a reactor would have marked the first clear evidence of ties between the two countries on a nuclear program.
Such cooperation would complicate multi-national talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
In Washington and Israel, the raid has been shrouded in secrecy and information restricted to few officials. Israeli media has been allowed to publish only the fact that a raid occurred without comment from Israeli officials.
1. Nuclear Reactors for Sale: France Vies for Big Stake in Industry Revival
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On a strip of France's Channel coast, cranes, trucks and cement silos are hard at work preparing the world's most powerful nuclear reactor and showcase of French atomic savoir-faire.
In two months, workers in Flamanville will pour the first concrete for the third-generation EPR, or European Pressurized Reactor, touted as the safest and cleanest addition to France's network of 58 nuclear reactors.
With more than 80 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear plants, France sees itself as a model for successfully putting the atom at work toward producing carbon-free and relatively cheap power.
More than two decades after Chernobyl shook the world's faith in nuclear power, France is vying to lead a worldwide revival of the nuclear industry as worries about global warming and rising energy prices have brought fission back in fashion.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has described nuclear power as the "energy of the future", stood up at the United Nations last month and delivered what was tantamount to a sales pitch for French nuclear technology.
"France is willing to help any country which wants to acquire civilian nuclear power. An energy source for the future should not be the preserve of western countries and out of reach of eastern countries," Sarkozy declared.
Such promotion at the top world body is music to the ears of France's nuclear conglomerate Areva which builds reactors, mines uranium and provides fuel as well as utilities giant Electricite de France, which operates France's nuclear plants.
"We have been running nuclear power plants for 30 years in France and there have been no major incident," said Goulven Graillat, the head of industrial strategy at EDF.
"If a country choses the EPR, it is getting the sum of EDF's experience running its 58 reactors," said Graillat. "We have 4,000 engineers working on designs - that's our strength."
When Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited France this month, he asked for a tour of a nuclear plant at Nogent-sur-Seine and later received an offer of help from Sarkozy to build the communist country's first reactor.
Vietnam, along with Morocco, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates are on the list of prospective new buyers of French-designed nuclear reactors, said Arthur de Montalembert, vice president for international affairs and marketing at Areva.
Areva is preparing for big business in the United States where it has partnered with Constellation Energy to build some of the 15 planned new reactors, in China, which wants to put 40 new reactors on-line by 2020 and in South Africa.
It is building a third-generation EPR in Finland, upgrading a German-designed reactor in Brazil and is actively seeking a stake in reviving Britain's outdated nuclear infrastructure in a venture with EDF.
India -- which like China is seeking to tap into new energy sources to feed its dynamic economy -- is also on the list of prospective new markets where "dozens of reactors" could dot the landscape in the coming years, said Montalembert.
"We are obviously on the frontlines to try to win over markets in these countries," he said.
Montalembert dismissed fears that any new buyer could put his nuclear reactor to work producing material for a bomb, emphasizing that a whole separate gamut of enrichment technology would be needed for such a venture.
"Of course we are not going to build a reactor just anywhere," said Montalembert during an interview at Areva headquarters in Paris.
"We are looking at countries that have the capacity to host this type of reactor, that have a nuclear safety authority that is able to regulate its operation and abide by international regulations in terms of nonproliferation."
France's decision to make nuclear energy its main source of electricity dates back to 1973 when the Middle East oil shock sent prices soaring and forced the government to seek alternate sources.
It now exports about 15 percent of nuclear-generated electricity to neighbouring countries.
When it comes on line in 2012, the Flamanville EPR will produce 36 percent more power than its older sisters and boast added security features such as a double haul that EDF maintains could resist a terrorist attack.
But in his home less than five kilometers from the new plant, anti-nuclear activist Didier Anger says talk of France leading a worldwide comeback of the atom is nothing but hype. "The EPR could very well be the next Concorde," he said of the technology, comparing it to the supersonic jet that was mothballed in 2003 after 34 years in the skies.
A disastrous crash and high-maintenance costs brought the Concorde to its end.
A former Green euro-MP now active for the group "Sortir du nucleaire" (End Nuclear Power), Anger noted that France had yet to resolve the issue of the long-term storage of nuclear waste. A law adopted last year set 2015 as the deadline for deciding what to do with processed waste.
But Anger admitted that he and like-minded colleagues are a "minority" in Normandy, which draws its economic lifeline as much from the nuclear industry as it does from cows whose milk is made into the gourmet Camembert cheese.
Other than the Flamanville power plant, a nuclear waste processing site at La Hague and the Cherbourg naval dockyard -- where nuclear submarines, the pride of the French navy, were built -- are major employers in the region.
"Everyone knows what nuclear power is about and they have no apprehensions," said Philippe Leigne, the manager of the construction site at Flamanville. "Everyone knows someone who works in the industry."
Leigne said he spares no effort to meet with local politicians and community leaders to discuss his work -- an approach that seeks to dispel the image of the nuclear industry as cloaked in military secrecy.
"No one would necessarily want a reactor in their backyard," said EDF's Graillat. "But in the interest of the country's energy needs and of the planet, it's not an unreasonable proposition to look at a renewal of nuclear energy."
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