1. Iran has Produced Nuclear Fuel Pellets for the First Time: Iranian VP
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Iran has produced its own nuclear fuel pellets made of uranium oxide for the first time to power a heavy-water reactor currently under construction, Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said Saturday according to the official IRNA news agency.
The announcement represents a major technological step forward ï¿½ it is the first time the Iranians have said they can turn uranium into the fuel pellets that are inserted into fuel rods that power nuclear reactors.
"Fuel pellets to be used in the 40-megawatt Arak research reactor (in central Iran) have been produced," IRNA quoted Aghazadeh, who heads the country's Atomic Energy Organization, as saying.
Iran's Arak reactor, which began construction in 2004, is a concern to the West because the spent fuel from a heavy-water facility can be used to produce plutonium, which in turn can be used for a nuclear weapon. U.N. inspectors last visited the reactor in July, and Iran has said it hopes to have Arak up and running by 2009.
Iran is developing Arak parallel to its better-known light-water reactor program, like the one being built with Russian help at Bushehr, which hold its own worries for the West. Such light-water reactors use enriched uranium as fuel, but the enrichment process, like plutonium, can also be used to produce the material needed for a nuclear weapon.
Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes including generating electricity, but the United States claims Iran is secretly trying to develop atomic weapons.
The U.S. and its allies have been focusing their attention on trying to get Iran to suspend its enrichment program because it is more developed and have suggested that they would address the heavy-water reactor in-depth later. U.N. Security Council resolutions have demanded that Iran stop construction of Arak, but Tehran has refused to halt work there.
Though Saturday's announcement only involved fuel pellets used in heavy-water reactors, Iran is also working to produce fuel pellets for its light-water reactors.
"Nuclear fuel pellets for use in heavy-water reactors are produced from uranium oxide, while the pellets for use in light-water reactors are produced from enriched uranium, but the technology to produce nuclear fuel pellets are almost the same," Iranian nuclear scientist Rasoul Sediqi Bonabi told The Associated Press.
Producing enriched uranium fuel pellets for light-water reactors is the final stage in a long process that begins with extracting the uranium ore, converting it into a concentrate yellow power called yellowcake before it is processed into UF-6, or uranium gas, that then has to be enriched using centrifuges.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, had no comment Saturday.
Aghazadeh said Iran was already testing the fuel pellets and the fuel rods produced at its nuclear fuel production facilities in Isfahan, located in central Iran.
Aghazadeh also dismissed any possibility of slowing down Iran's uranium enrichment program, which has already prompted the Security Council to issue two rounds of sanctions against Iran.
"There has been no change or reconsideration in our plans in Natanz. Work is going on as scheduled," Aghazadeh said, referring to Iran's uranium enrichment facility.
Earlier this month, Iran said it has reached a milestone in its uranium enrichment program, saying the country now has 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges fully operating at Natanz.
The number 3,000 is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program.
Iran says it plans to expand its enrichment program to up to 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz and is fully within its rights to pursue the enrichment to produce fuel under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The IAEA last week said Iran had installed and fed uranium gas into nearly 3,000 centrifuges. The agency verified that Iran had finished installing eighteen 164-machine cascades at Natanz and that UF-6, or uranium gas, had been fed into all 18 cascades.
But former nuclear inspector David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said to his knowledge Iran has produced low-enriched uranium "on a very small scale and it's got to be only for testing purposes." Enriched uranium at low levels is used as nuclear fuel. At high, or weapons-grade levels, it serves as the fissile core of nuclear arms.
He said Tehran possessed only about 125 kilograms (less than 400 pounds) of the substance, a tiny fraction of what it would take to fuel a power reactor using enriched uranium as its source.
Last week's report by the IAEA said Tehran had been generally truthful about key aspects of its nuclear history, stymieing U.S. efforts to impose new sanctions against Iran.
Aghazadeh said the IAEA report was "very big victory," because it cleared up suspicions about two decades of Iran's nuclear activities and the way was now open for compromise.
"Conditions are entirely ripe now for Iran and the West to reach a new compromise to close Iran's nuclear issue and save the world from being falsely inflamed," IRNA quoted Aghazadeh as saying.
1. NKorea to Come Clean on Nuclear Programmes: Report
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North Korea will come clean on all its nuclear programmes, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper said Monday, as experts from five nations prepared to check progress on disabling its plutonium-producing atomic plants.
The report came as the US embassy said a State Department official had been stationed in the North Korean capital to assist the US-supervised drive to disable the plants by year-end.
Under the current phase of a six-nation pact, North Korea agreed to disable its plants and declare a full list of nuclear programmes by the end of this year in return for major energy aid.
Work started at the main complex at Yongbyon in early November, some 13 months after Pyongyang shocked the world with its first nuclear test.
US, South Korean, Japanese, Russian and Chinese experts will visit Yongbyon from November 27-29, the South Korean foreign ministry said.
Seoul is sending deputy nuclear negotiator Lim Sung-Nam and one expert, said spokesman Cho Hee-Yong. They left Monday morning for Beijing to join the multinational team and will be the first South Koreans to visit Yongbyon.
Chosun Sinbo, a newspaper for ethnic Koreans in Japan which often reflects the North Korean government's view, said Monday the communist state would make full disclosure if the other parties also lived up to their obligations.
"Analysts who worry about a cover-up in the declaration are obsessed with out-of-date ways of thinking. They say North Korea is actually reluctant to get denuclearised.
"This is an assertion far from fact," said the paper.
In other signs of efforts to meet the year-end deadline, a diplomatic source in Seoul told AFP that US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill would likely visit Japan, South Korea and China this week.
Some media reports have said the next round of six-party talks will be on December 6-8 after negotiators get a report from this week's inspection visit.
Relations between the US and the North, once branded by President George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil," have been improving since Pyongyang committed to scrapping its atomic programmes.
"One US State Department official is currently staying at the Koryo Hotel with a telephone and a fax machine," embassy spokesman Max Kwak told AFP. He said the official was helping with logistics for the equipment needed to conduct disablement work.
"The official will return after the duty is fulfilled," said Kwak, adding this was not a prelude to normalising relations.
South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said the diplomat had been in Pyongyang since mid-November.
Quoting a source in Washington, it said the White House would soon send another senior diplomat to handle political affairs who would permanently reside in North Korea for the first time.
The Koryo Hotel was expected to become "a de facto US liaison office," Chosun said. Kwak said he had no information on any follow-up measures.
If the North goes on next year to irreversibly dismantle all its atomic plants and weapons, Washington envisages lifting sanctions and establishing diplomatic relations as part of the six-nation accord reached in February.
With the Labour Party coming to power in Australia, the fate of the Australian Cabinet decision to supply uranium to India is now under question.
Labour Party chief, and the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd has gone on record that a Labour government will allow the sale of uranium only after India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Mr Rudd had pledged to overturn the Cabinet decision calling it a ï¿½bad decision.ï¿½
If the Labour government sticks to its stance, it could mean the reversal of the Cabinet decision. Sources said that the Indian government has been working over-time to save the situation. It is learnt that Indiaï¿½s high commissioner to Australia has been meeting key Labour Party members in a bid to soften the partyï¿½s stance.
Political analysts believe that the Labout Party might change its stance once it assumes office. But that remains to be seen. The Indian government will be closely watching developments in Australia to see if there is a general shift in its foreign policy. Mr Rudd is seen to be more inclined towards China. Australia watchers say that under Labour, Canberrra might also take a position away from the quadrilateral grouping of Australia, India, US and Japan, which has gained the reputation of a grouping that could restrain China.
Even as some experts predicted a slowdown in bilateral ties, diplomatic sources here said that Canberra cannot ignore India, which is Australiaï¿½s fastest growing trading partner. Education ties between the two countries are also strong with 54,000 Indian students studying in Australia. Also, around 2,34,000 Indians reside in Australia.
Australia has 40% of the worldï¿½s uranium reserves and outgoing prime minister John Howard had looked at India as a potential market for increasing exports. The decision to sell uranium to India had actually reversed Australiaï¿½s long-standing policy to supply uranium only to NPT countries.
The non-proliferation lobby had sharply criticised the decision, and had accused the government of violating international nuclear non-proliferation commitments.
Australia will start supplying uranium to India only after the negotiation of a bilateral agreement where contentious issues like nuclear testing needed to be thrashed out.
The computer's voice repeatedly droned "Gamma Alert!" until Glen Neilson, a Customs and Border Protection officer, reached up and switched it off. It was his fifth radioactivity alert in five minutes.
Neilson was working at Pier A in the Port of Long Beach, which has more such alerts than any cargo terminal in the nation. A truck hauling a rusty yellow container triggered this one.
He directed the truck to a secondary inspection station and called up the container's shipping manifest. Something didn't look right. The cargo was supposed to be window shutters from China.
Neilson picked up a microphone and ordered over a loud speaker "pop the can," meaning officers would use a 4-foot bolt cutter to open the container. They brought out a hand-held isotope scanner to pinpoint the source of the radiation.
After 10 minutes, the mystery was solved. Once again, it was not a nuclear bomb being smuggled by terrorists. Instead, it was big-rig driver Francisco Villalpando of Gardena, having received a dose of medical radiation 10 days earlier, who was lighting up monitors from his driver's seat. "I've been setting off radiation alarms all over the port," he grumbled.
The system worked just the way it was designed that morning, but the incident also provided a glimpse into the difficulties customs agents have on the front line against nuclear smuggling.
Every day, about 500 radiation alarms sound at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, a nuisance that is growing as the federal government ratchets up the nation's defenses.
Over the past year, customs officers have begun scanning every container that enters the United States for traces of radioactivity.
Not satisfied with that, the Bush administration has embarked on a far-reaching technological effort to achieve a nearly leakproof barrier.
U.S. radiation monitoring equipment is running at eight foreign ports that send goods to the United States and at about 450 border crossings and airports around the world.
Under federal law, 100% of cargo arriving legally at U.S. borders by 2012 will be scanned abroad and then again at U.S. ports. More sophisticated monitors, costing billions of dollars, are under development.
Ultimately, federal officials envision a time when the nation will be ringed by radiation monitors at ports, along isolated sea coasts, plying the oceans, roving highways in police cars and even dotting checkpoints on routes into major cities -- all tied into a central national command center and staffed around the clock.
Some scientists at the Department of Homeland Security are calling the effort Manhattan 2, referring to the massive project that developed the first atomic bomb.
Vice President Dick Cheney has taken a special interest in the effort and backed the political appointment of a key ally to the job of developing the architecture for the system.
But nobody is sure that any system in the foreseeable future can keep out terrorist nuclear bombs with absolute assurance. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium, contrary to public perception, have very low levels of radioactivity. With a bit of lead or other shielding material, no existing detector can find them. Moreover, lots of normal cargo -- as innocuous as granite counter tops and ceramic vases -- puts out gamma radiation.
"People think we are going to catch a terrorist bomb with these radiation monitors," said Laura Holgate, a former Defense Department and Energy Department nuclear weapons expert now at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington advocacy group. "If we can't catch people and drugs coming across our border, I have no confidence that we can create a seamless security perimeter for nuclear weapons."
What's more, pressure to deploy more advanced monitors is quickly leading to alleged abuses.
The most recent flap involves the "advanced spectroscopic portal," a $1.2-billion effort by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, a part of Homeland Security. Production was stopped last month amid allegations by the Government Accountability Office that federal program managers rigged testing to certify that the equipment worked as advertised and reports that the machines were not reliable.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who has held a series of hearings into the radiation monitoring program, is convinced that the new generation of monitors is no better than the old. "The next generation of equipment will only be as good as the next salesman knocking on the door of the Department of Homeland Security," Stupak said.
While the administration is rushing to make ports invulnerable, he said, little is being done to stop potential smugglers from walking across the Mexican or Canadian borders, or to plug other obvious weaknesses in the system. "The entire strategy is wrong," he said. "The advanced spectroscopic monitor is only one part of a much bigger problem."
Vayl Oxford, chief of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, said the program hasn't gotten a fair shake. Oxford is a veteran of national security programs. While working at the White House's national security council, he became a protege of the vice president.
Cheney, among others, was dissatisfied with Homeland Security's progress in developing radiation monitors. After a lengthy executive branch process, Oxford was installed in the new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office two years ago. Oxford downplayed his connections to Cheney, saying, "I know him."
"There was a general consensus that we were not making enough progress," Oxford said in his Washington office.
The advanced spectroscopic portal was developed with a proper sense of urgency, Oxford said. Though it is no more sensitive than existing systems, it can identify the kind of isotope that is producing radiation. As a result, it theoretically produces fewer nuisance alarms and many fewer secondary inspections.
But GAO investigators found that government contractors were told what kinds of nuclear materials would be used and where they would be placed in certification tests, allowing the vendors to fine-tune software to find the hidden packages.
When Sandia National Laboratory devised a separate, tougher series of tests for the monitors, it tricked the system simply by putting radioactive materials in places where the machines weren't looking: inside a truck's front bumper, for example, said William Ballard, the nuclear countermeasures chief at Sandia.
"Nothing will be perfect," Oxford said.
The advanced spectroscopic portal is one of many systems Oxford wants to bring into action. In Seattle and San Diego, Oxford is testing radiation monitors that will be deployed at sea. In New York, he has created a coalition of 28 federal, state and local jurisdictions using radiation detection equipment, linked to a watch desk. If the system works, it will be exported to other cities starting in 2010, he said.
Oxford has put out contracts to develop a high-powered imaging system -- the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System -- that can see through steel containers to look for heavy metals used to shield uranium or plutonium. If deployed, the CAARS system could cost $10 billion, according to one Homeland Security official.
Meanwhile, Sandia, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories, among others, have teams of scientists trying to develop a technology for foolproof container screening. Oxford's office has issued 44 research contracts.
But outside experts say that Oxford is fighting the laws of physics, and that his spending priorities are misplaced.
The existing monitors, which use plastic crystals that detect radiation, were inexpensive and widely available when they were rushed into service after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Even though a knowledgeable smuggler can defeat them, they did improve security against a careless or unsophisticated terrorist. But developing vastly better systems will be expensive and perhaps technically difficult, if not impossible.
A senior Defense Department official familiar with radiation monitoring systems said Oxford's goals were unattainable with any technology envisioned for decades. The official declined to be identified, because he was not authorized to critique the plans of other federal agencies.
Holgate, the nuclear weapons expert, is part of a movement calling for more effort to lock down bomb-making materials. She points to an Energy Department effort to upgrade security at Russian nuclear weapon sites and to consolidate stockpiles of highly enriched uranium at civilian reactors in former Soviet republics. "The balance is exactly backward," she said about the big spending on radiation monitors.
No one disputes the growing threat of nuclear terrorism. As more nuclear power plants are built around the world, traffic in nuclear materials and the capability to process fuels is expected to grow. More nations want nuclear weapons, as well. All of that will expand potential opportunities for terrorists to get nuclear material and somehow sneak it into the United States.
Every year, 6,000 ocean vessels converge on Southern California from every corner of the world, carrying 5 million containers and other bulk cargo.
Todd A. Hoffman, the Customs and Border Protection seaport director, dressed in a crisp navy-blue uniform with two gold stars on his collar and a gun at his side, has much of the responsibility for preventing the entry of a nuclear device through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Hoffman worries about the delicate balance between his officers not overreacting to alarms and ennui every time a radiation monitor lights up inside the guard shack -- there were 115,000 false alarms last year. A veteran of 15 years with customs, Hoffman said radiation monitors were just a tool.
"We want officers to use their experience and their sixth sense," he said, as he watched Neilson and his other officers monitor port traffic.
The new advanced spectroscopic monitors could help make his operation more efficient, but after testing one in Long Beach the system didn't seem quite ready for prime time.
"It is a work in progress," Hoffman said. "This is new technology. We have issues with reliability, having the system working when we need it.
"Nothing is foolproof. The day we think the system is foolproof is the day we should quit."
1. France and China Sign Nuclear and Airline Deals
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French executives accompanying the country's president on a trip to China today closed deals worth ï¿½20bn (ï¿½14.4bn) to sell nuclear reactors and Airbus planes to the communist state.
Nicolas Sarkozy, on a visit focusing on trade relations, welcomed the lucrative agreements but also warned of the environmental costs of China's rapid economic growth.
"We hope China's growth can continue, but we also hope China's growth is carbon-free and environmentally friendly. We believe this is in China's interests and the interests of the entire world," he said.
With human rights all but left off the agenda despite an election pledge to stand by "all those who are persecuted by tyrannies, by dictatorships", Sarzoky and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, presided over a series of signings after talks in Beijing.
In the biggest agreement, worth around ï¿½10bn, China committed to buying 160 Airbus planes.
In other deals, France's state-owned Areva SA finalised an ï¿½8bn contract to sell two nuclear reactors to state-run China Guangdong Nuclear Power in one of the company's largest contracts ever.
French, American and Russian suppliers have been hotly vying for contracts in China, which plans to build as many as 32 nuclear plants by 2020 in an attempt to meet increasing power demands. With Hu by his side, Sarkozy told journalists that he appreciated China's progress on improving citizen's rights. However, he said he had also "reiterated France's desire to see further progress, especially in respect to the application of rule of law in the judiciary, the freedom of journalists and in the death penalty".
The Paris-based advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, had earlier appealed to Sarkozy to raise the cases of 33 journalists and 50 cyber-dissidents imprisoned in China.
The French leader discussed with Hu his hopes that China would drop its opposition to further UN sanctions against Tehran, and pressure Burma's military junta to talk to the democratic opposition.
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