Russia's lower house of parliament on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a bill which will pave the way for a merger of civilian nuclear companies into one state firm with global clout.
President Vladimir Putin last year approved a revamp of the nuclear industry which officials say is aimed at boosting nuclear energy production and strengthening Russia's presence on the expanding world nuclear market.
"Russia's atomic sector today is one of the few sectors of the national economy that is fulfilling its export potential through scientific and high technology production," says an explanatory note.
"Foreign companies are at the present time preparing for a new stage in the competitive struggle for the world uranium market and enrichment service," the note said.
Climate change and high oil prices have prompted many countries to look with favor on nuclear energy as a cheap power source. Russia already builds nuclear power stations around the world and wants to position itself to win more contracts.
Under the Russian plan, a single state company called Atomprom will be created on the base of the many smaller, sometimes overlapping, state-controlled companies in the sector.
Nuclear officials compare Atomprom to state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, the world's biggest gas company by reserves, which has become a key geopolitical instrument for the Kremlin.
The note mentions global competitors such as French state-owned nuclear energy group Areva (CEPFi.PA: Quote, Profile , Research), Urenco Ltd, the Anglo-Dutch-German manufacturer of enriched uranium, and U.S.-based Westinghouse, which is owned by Japan's Toshiba Corp (6502.T: Quote, NEWS , Research).
Lawmakers in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, approved the bill on second reading on Wednesday with 372 for and 43 against. The bill has to pass a third reading but this is usually a formality.
2. Roadmap for Civil Nuke Cooperation on Putinï¿½s Agenda
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Russia and India could come up with a roadmap for future civil nuclear cooperation during Russian President Vladimir Putinï¿½s two-day visit to India later this month.
Mr. Putin, who is coming as the guest for Republic Day celebrations, will arrive on January 24. He will be traveling with a business delegation. The head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, is among the officials traveling with him, sources said.
Official-level discussions are likely to be held on January 25 with the focus being on civil nuclear cooperation and increasing defense ties. ï¿½There will be a roadmap for peaceful expansion of civil nuclear energy which could include expansion of Koodamkulam and some other areas where India is planning to get atomic reactors,ï¿½ï¿½ Russian ambassador Vyacheslav Ivanovich said on the sidelines of a CII function.
He added this would be the most important issue during the visit. ï¿½India is eager to get as many sources of energy which is non-polluting and in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol. Nuclear energy will be useful,ï¿½ï¿½ he added.
India and Russia already have a history of cooperation in the nuclear field with Russia helping India with the Koodamkulam atomic power plant and supplying fuel to Tarapur. There is an Indo-Russian inter-governmental memorandum of October 4, 2000, that looks at expansion of civil nuclear cooperation and a bilateral agreement on Koodamkulam. But there is a feeling that this needs to be updated.
And in the backdrop of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation and a civil nuclear agreement with France, there is a sense in Moscow that it should not lose out on the opportunities in India once the Nuclear Suppliers Group amends its laws and IAEA safeguards are in place.
Sources said that a roadmap would be like a strategic plan and could include issues like transfer of nuclear technology, supply of fuel, reprocessing technology and other areas of future cooperation. The Russians, of course, will wait for the green signal from the NSG.
India and Russia have been talking for a while on civil nuclear cooperation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh bringing it up during his visit to Russia in 2004. During Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkovï¿½s visit last year, both sides had agreed to make joint efforts for ï¿½long-term and large-scale cooperation in civilian nuclear energyï¿½. This time round, itï¿½s the Russians who are keen to put a roadmap in place.
Meanwhile, defense issues will also be another focus area for the Russians with minister of defense Ivanov traveling with the President. Russia has its eyes set on the 126 fighter planes that the Indian Air Force wants to procure. ï¿½We are bidding for 126 fighter planes. We would like to suggest our best, which is the MIG-35.
This is something even our Air Force doesnï¿½t have. That might be milestone in our ties,ï¿½ï¿½ said the Russian ambassador. He added that during Putinï¿½s visit, attention of the Indian Air Force and the defense minister would be drawn to the Russian planes. The US and France are also pushing for the deal.
Another issue that the Russians are keen on is the signing of a re-admission treaty which they are linking to liberalization of visas for businesspersons. New Delhi, sources said, is in no mood to sign a re-admission treaty and sees no reason for it to be linked with visa liberalization.
The dispute is over a clause where Russians want India to take responsibility for illegal immigrants before the verification of the nationality is complete. New Delhi has ruled this out, sources said.
Iran said Monday it is currently installing 3,000 centrifuges, effectively confirming that its nuclear program is running behind schedule, since these devices for uranium enrichment were to have been in place by the end of last year.
"We are moving toward the production of nuclear fuel, which requires 3,000 centrifuges and more than this figure," government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told a news conference. "This program is being carried out and moving toward completion."
On the weekend, Iran dismissed reports from Europe that its uranium enrichment program had been stalled. But last year, Iran said the installation of the 3,000 centrifuges would be completed by the end of 2006. Iran's failure to install the 3,000 centrifuges by Dec. 31 has provoked reports that it is encountering technical difficulties in mastering large-scale enrichment.
Further, earlier this month, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told reporters that about 50 centrifuges had exploded during a test. "We had installed 50 centrifuges. One night, I was informed that all the 50 centrifuges had exploded ... [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad called me and said, 'Build these machines even if they explode 10 times more,'" Aghazadeh was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
Diplomats in Vienna - where the International Atomic Energy Agency is based - said Thursday that the enrichment program in Natanz, central Iran, had ground to a halt.
Last month, President Ahmadinejad boasted that Iran would soon celebrate, probably in February, the completion of its nuclear fuel cycle - the processing of uranium from mining the ore to enriching it.
The government has condemned as "invalid" and "illegal" the UN Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on Iran last month for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. The resolution warned Iran that if it refused to comply within 60 days, the council would adopt further sanctions.
Iran says that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has the right to develop a peaceful uranium enrichment program to produce nuclear power. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it has found no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear bombs, but it has criticized the country for concealing certain nuclear activities and failing to answer questions about the program.
Russia said on Tuesday it had delivered new anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran and would consider further requests by Tehran for defensive weapons.
Washington and Israel, who accuse Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear arms and undermining security in the region, have criticized the sale of TOR-M1 missiles. Tehran, they say, could use them against its neighbors.
"We have supplied the modern short-range anti-aircraft systems TOR-M1 in accordance with our contracts," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters when asked about the sale.
"We're developing our military and technical cooperation with Iran in accordance with international law and will continue to develop it," he said. "And if Iran wants to buy defensive, I underline defensive, equipment for its armed forces then why not?"
Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister and is seen as a potential successor to President Vladimir Putin, did not say how many missile systems had been delivered or when the deliveries took place.
Russian arms sales and nuclear cooperation with Iran have strained relations with Washington, which suspects Tehran of using a nuclear power program as cover for development of atomic weapons.
Russia, building Iran's first nuclear power plant in Bushehr, says Tehran does not have the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran says it has a right to develop its civilian nuclear sector and denies seeking nuclear arms.
A defense ministry source later told Reuters deliveries of hardware under the $1-billion TOR-M1 missile deal had not yet been completed.
Late in 2006 Russia reluctantly joined UN sanctions against Iran, which introduced restrictions on Iran's trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology, aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
But Moscow says the sanctions do not apply to the missile systems, which are designed to shoot down aircraft, missiles and other weapons at medium and low altitudes.
"Iran is not under any sanctions," Ivanov said. "The UN resolution that was accepted and for which the Russian Federation voted, does not apply to contracts made by Iran."
The Russian military insists that the missile systems will protect Iran from air attacks, but do not pose a threat to neighboring countries.
Russia dropped the idea of selling longer-range S300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran last year, Russian news agencies have reported.
The US in 2006 imposed sanctions on leading Russian arms firms over arms sales to Iran and Syria. One of the firms, Rosoboronexport, Russia's biggest arms exporter, is headed by an old colleague from Putin's KGB's past, Sergei Chemezov.
Future nuclear power plants should include design improvements to better protect against a terrorist attack by large aircraft, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Tuesday.
The chairman, Dale Klein, said the commission soon will give guidance to reactor manufacturers on ï¿½what we believe the reactors should be designed to withstand,ï¿½ including the possibility of a terrorist crashing a plane into the reactor.
ï¿½It is likely that we will ask the vendors to consider that in a different way than we did in the previous plants,ï¿½ said Klein in an Associated Press interview in his office at NRC headquarters in suburban Rockville, Md.
Klein, who became the commission's chairman last June, said it was incorrect to suggest that the NRC will not require design improvements to guard against an airborne terrorist attack.
The 103 reactors now in use were designed under regulations that did not require consideration of a direct hit by an aircraft. The nuclear industry maintains that protection against such an attack is a government matter and not one reactor operators should be responsible for as part of their security. While the industry says tests show current reactors can withstand such a direct hit, others have raised doubts.
Klein said the NRC will likely want future reactor designs to take such a possibility into account.
ï¿½These new plants have the opportunity to reduce the (deterrent) actionsï¿½ that will be required as part of plant operations ï¿½by increased design requirements,ï¿½ Klein said. ï¿½The new reactors in all likelihood will be more robust than the existing fleet.ï¿½
The NRC is gearing up for a rush of applications for new power reactors, the first such applications since the 1970s before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Klein said four or five firm applications for new reactors are expected to be received this year with another eight likely in 2008. Most, if not all, of the new reactors are expected to be built on the sites of existing nuclear power plants.
In the interview, Klein expressed concern that the NRC won't be able to handle the license requests promptly unless Congress increases funding. The NRC, like other agencies, has not received a new budget and will run $95 million, or 12 percent, short. ï¿½It will slow (the licensing) down,ï¿½ said Klein, because there won't be money to train licensing specialists.
On other matters, Klein:
-Said the NRC is ready and in ï¿½a watch-and-see modeï¿½ when it comes to the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. He noted there have been several ï¿½false startsï¿½ in the Energy Department's push to complete a license application.
-Expressed confidence that reactor waste can continue to be stored at nuclear plant sites in water pools and dry-cask storage, which are both regulated by the NRC.
-Said that the new, streamlined licensing process for new power reactors - now about 42 months - should be shortened even more, at least after the initial group of licenses. It can be done ï¿½with no compromise on safety,ï¿½ he said.
-Expects that Congress will require NRC approval for licenses for proposed reprocessing facilities under the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Program. ï¿½In today's world, it's not likely the DOE will self-regulate like it has in the past,ï¿½ Klein said. He said the NRC is on the fence when it comes to reprocessing nuclear fuel, the centerpiece of the Bush administration's vision of an expanded nuclear industry.
ï¿½As a regulator, we will evaluate whatever proposal comes at us, but we are not promoting recycling nor are we discouraging it,ï¿½ Klein said.
1. Former U.S. Ambassador to U.N. Favors Collapse of North Korean Regime
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The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program have failed and the world should push the impoverished regime toward collapse, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Wednesday.
John Bolton, who left the U.N. in December, said the United States and Japan should enlist China and South Korea in efforts to put further pressure on North Korea, which he said has no intention of verifiably giving up its nuclear weapons program.
ï¿½The only answer ... is the collapse of the North Korean regime and the hopefully peaceful reunification of Korea, and that should be our objective,ï¿½ Bolton, now a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told reporters.
The latest round of the six-party talks ï¿½ including the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia ï¿½ ended in December with no agreement on disarmament or a new date for further talks.
Bolton said the North's missile tests in July and its first nuclear test, in October, showed the communist regime was determined to develop a weapon and greatly embarrassed its top ally, China.
Even if North Korea were to promise to give up its weapons program, Bolton said it was highly unlikely the regime would submit to invasive verification of its nuclear sites to make sure it was not cheating.
ï¿½If my conclusion that the six-party talks have failed is correct ... that means we have to switch to a new policy,ï¿½ he said at the Japan National Press Club.
Bolton said China and others could be persuaded to further tighten sanctions on North Korea, cut off Pyongyang's access to banks, and shut down shipments of any materials useful to its weapons programs.
Bolton, an arms control expert, also called for further U.N. Security Council action against Iran for failing to stop its uranium enrichment program.
The former diplomat, who was admired as a skilled negotiator but became increasingly unpopular among fellow envoys for his abrasive style, resigned last month as his temporary appointment as U.N. ambassador was about to expire.
He was in Tokyo on a weeklong visit at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry.
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