1. U.S. House Authorizes $178 Million for Russian Nuclear Safety
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The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a defense policy bill authorizing $178 million for nuclear security in Russia.
Of the total allocated sum, $93 million is to be spent on destroying strategic offensive armaments in Russia, with about $48 million set aside for the storage of nuclear weapons and some $38 million for the safe transportation of nuclear arms under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
The program is designed to help Russia and other ex-Soviet states secure sensitive nuclear, chemical and biological materials in order to prevent both accidents and the weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
The bill was passed by the House of Representatives 370-49 on Wednesday, but has yet to be approved by the Senate and signed by President George W. Bush. It sets overall U.S. spending on nuclear and chemical security measures in former Soviet states at $428 million, up $80 million on 2007.
Other countries have also made contributions to nuclear security programs, including to decommission Russian nuclear submarines, as well as shut down plutonium production facilities, regarded as a nuclear nonproliferation threat and a major safety risk.
The program envisages their replacement with fossil fuel energy plants to provide heating and employment in nearby areas.
This year saw Russia raise spending on nuclear and radiation safety tenfold, from $7.4 million in 2006 to $110 million, according to the country's nuclear chief Sergei Kiriyenko.
The bill sets the United States' overall defense budget at $964 billion for 2008.
Russia on Monday announced the start of nuclear fuel deliveries for Iran's first atomic power station, brushing aside US and Israeli claims that Tehran harbours secret bomb-making plans.
"On December 16, 2007, Atomstroiexport began delivery of the fuel for the initial installation at the future Bushehr power station," the state-run corporation said in a statement.
The delivery process will take up to two months to complete, Atomstroiexport said, with the Russian-built station starting to generate electricity in approximately six months time.
The still-unfinished Bushehr is the jewel in the crown of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear power ambitions.
Iran confirmed the Russian shipment and in a fresh show of defiance toward the West, repeated that it would refuse UN demands to give up work on enriching uranium.
Israel and Western governments, led by the United States, have long argued that Iran's civilian programme is being used as cover for a bomb-making project.
Russia rejects this and Moscow's position was bolstered earlier this month when the US intelligence community contradicted the White House by reporting that Iran had stopped a drive for nuclear weapons in 2003.
The US report provided Russia with its "final argument," Fyodor Lukyanov, at the journal Russia in Global Affairs, told AFP.
The Russian foreign ministry stressed in a statement that deliveries were made under control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It added that spent fuel from Bushehr would be "returned to Russia for reprocessing and storage" -- part of a plan to ensure that the fuel does not go astray.
IAEA officials monitored the sealing of the nuclear fuel two weeks ago at a factory in Novossibirsk ahead of the delivery.
The decision to send fuel -- which in its current state is fit only for civilian use -- marked a diplomatic victory for Russia, which has been building Bushehr since 1995.
"The Russian-Iranian cooperation on the Bushehr power station visibly demonstrates that one can effectively and reliably guarantee the realisation of national plans on developing the civilian atomic energy sector," the foreign ministry statement said.
In addition to rejecting US calls for the suspension of Bushehr, Moscow has also sold Iran anti-aircraft missiles and other high-tech weapons reportedly deployed by Iran's military in defence of nuclear installations.
Western powers, led by the United States, are pushing for a third UN sanctions resolution against Tehran to punish its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment -- a process that could eventually lead to weapons-grade uranium.
Russia's delivery of fuel makes the possibility of passing further UN measures increasingly unlikely however, analysts said.
"Russia and China, which were already against sanctions, will now be even more confident," Lukyanov said.
Iran in any case shows no sign of buckling under the pressure.
The head of Iran's atomic energy organisation Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said that enrichment was needed for "a 360-megawatt nuclear reactor in Darkhoyen" in the western Khuzestan province.
"The fuel for this power station must come from Natanz," the site of Iran's uranium enrichment plant, he said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli daily Maariv reported over the weekend that a delegation left Israel for Washington last week "with the goal of proving to the Americans that the Iranian nuclear weapons programme is definitely still in development."
1. U.S., China to Press North Korea on Nuclear Deadline, Hill Says
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The U.S. and China are pressing North Korea to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to fully disclose its nuclear weapons programs, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said.
``We understand that the North Koreans are today continuing to work on a declaration,'' Hill told a news conference in Washington yesterday. ``We are hopeful that we would have the complete declaration provided around the year end.''
China's envoy to the six-party talks, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, will visit North Korea ``soon'' to discuss disarmament steps, Hill said after briefing U.S. senators on the negotiations, according to a transcript. The U.S. expects ``additional discussions'' later this month, he added, without elaborating.
North Korea signed an accord in February with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia and China to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy aid and normalized relations with the governments in Washington and Tokyo. Kim Jong Il's regime shut down the Yongbyon reactor, which produced weapons-grade plutonium, in July.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday North Korea's cooperation so far doesn't mean the Bush administration plans to ``engage broadly'' with the regime, the Associated Press reported.
Increased ties will only come ``after denuclearization,'' Rice said in an interview, according to the news agency.
North Korea wants the U.S. to remove it from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The communist nation was put on the list in 1988 after its agents were implicated in the bombing of a South Korean passenger airliner the year before that killed all 155 people on board.
Designation as a state sponsor of terrorism results in sanctions including curbs on economic aid and a ban on sales of weapons.
The six-nation talks, which began in 2003, gained urgency after North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in October last year, prompting United Nations sanctions on the country.
North Korea must include the number of nuclear warheads produced and the amount of processed plutonium in the declaration, Hill said late last month. The declaration should take the form of a single statement, rather than come in several phases, he added. North Korea began disabling its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, fuel reprocessing plants and a fuel fabrication plant under the supervision of U.S. inspectors last month. Kim's regime has pledged to complete the process and provide a complete list of its nuclear programs by Dec. 31.
U.S. senators who met with Hill yesterday said they were also waiting for a full declaration from North Korea.
``There's a lot of work that must be done before we achieve the verifiable dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program,'' Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate's Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said at the news conference with Hill.
``We will have a much better idea of the way forward after North Korea provides a complete declaration of its nuclear activities in the coming weeks,'' she said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has put the country's nuclear weapons under the control of the president, rather than the prime minister.
The president issued an ordinance - which has to be ratified by parliament some time over the next six months - which formalised his control on Friday.
His move comes amid concern abroad that the nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.
The military says that its nuclear weapons security is "foolproof".
President Musharraf assumed control of his country's nuclear weapons by taking command of the National Command Authority (NCA), the body which is responsible for operating them.
General elections are due to be held in Pakistan on 8 January and many commentators predict that if the vote is fair, a government hostile to President Musharraf could emerge.
Army spokesman Maj Gen Waheed Arshad said there was a consensus among political parties in Pakistan that nuclear weapons should be controlled by the NCA.
He said it was important that the make-up of this body should be put on a firm legal footing before the elections.
"There is a transition in process and the country is returning to full democracy, so whatever things were left to be done are being done," he said.
The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has been of worldwide concern in recent months because of spread of pro-Taleban militancy.
President Musharraf established the NCA in 2000, two years after Pakistan detonated several atomic devices to establish itself as the Islamic world's only declared nuclear weapons power.
Four years after the first tests, the country's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was exposed as the head of an international black market in nuclear technology.
Today Pakistani officials remain sensitive to suggestions that Pakistan's nuclear weapons - the country's main source of defence against arch-rival India - might not be under firm control.
Last month the authorities strongly condemned suggestions by two American academics that American forces could enter Pakistan to prevent radical militants Islamists from getting their hands on a nuclear device.
"The NCA took note of the hostile campaign in a section of the international media with regard to Pakistan's nuclear assets," said a statement on Friday.
"While reiterating that the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets was foolproof, it advised against creating irresponsible alarm."
The statement said that Pakistan was capable of defending its interests and cautioned those "contemplating misadventures".
Last month Pakistan confirmed that the US was helping ensure the security of its nuclear weapons.
1. Soaring Energy Needs, Oil Prices Push SE Asia to Nuclear Power
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As oil prices and energy demand soar in tandem in Southeast Asia, many nations are turning to nuclear power -- to the horror of environmentalists who say it is not a safe option.
Thirsting for energy to fuel their growing economies, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have all put in place nuclear power strategies, aiming to build the first plants by 2015 at the earliest.
Thailand's energy minister, Piyasvasti Amranand, said energy demand per capita in his country was rocketing, and with the kingdom currently importing 60 percent of its energy, new sources were needed to maintain growth.
"We have to look at nuclear, which is proven technology," he said in an interview with AFP in the run-up to key climate change talks in Indonesia.
Governments are also citing climate change as a reason for their switch to nuclear power.
Some hail it as a clean energy that will help lessen the world's dependence on the polluting fossil fuels, gas, oil and coal, which spew damaging greenhouse gasses into the air and drive global warming.
In September, US President George W. Bush said rich countries should help developing nations obtain "secure, cost-effective and proliferation-resistant nuclear power."
"Nuclear power is the one existing source of energy that can generate massive amounts of electricity without causing any air pollution or greenhouse-gas emissions," Bush said.
But green groups dismiss that argument, and the row spilled over at Bali, where environment ministers from nearly 190 nations last week grappled over a plan to tackle climate change.
"Nuclear power is neither a clean nor viable option for any of these countries," said Shailendra Yashwant, climate change head with Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
"The hazard of radioactive leaks, Chernobyl-like accidents, lack of safe waste disposal mechanisms or facility and finally the humongous costs of building a nuclear power plant make it the least attractive or viable option."
Activists from around the world staged a protest outside the Bali conference centre, urging the ministers to shun nuclear power.
"Promoting nuclear energy to countries which are exposed to extreme weather events, seismic activity and other natural catastrophes is irresponsible," said Sabine Bock, of green group Women in Europe for a Common Future.
But boundaries have recently blurred between nuclear friends and foes. A number of gurus of the environmental movement, including Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and scientist James Lovelock, have come out in favour of nuclear power.
The potential of nuclear energy to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions was mentioned in a May report by the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top scientific authority on the issue.
But the report also mentioned safety concerns, the threat of weapons proliferation and waste disposal as problems.
Energy security and oil prices are also key concerns for governments. Crude prices have more than tripled in three years, while countries across Southeast Asia are seeing breakneck economic growth.
Greenpeace's Shailendra said energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind can meet half of the world's energy needs by 2050 while cutting global carbon dioxide emissions by almost 50 percent.
Piyasvasti said that for Thailand, renewables were part of the plan but would not meet their requirement of 1,400 more megawatts of energy per year.
"I think that new projects in renewable energy (will produce) 1,400 megawatts over the next five years," he said, adding that Thailand aims to have their first nuclear plant up and running by about 2020.
Indonesia, meanwhile, said it plans to reduce its dependency on oil from 24 percent of total energy supply now to 3 percent in 2025, when it aims to generate 4 percent of energy from nuclear power.
So far, the only country in Southeast Asia that has built a nuclear power plant is the Philippines -- with chaotic results.
Its 2.3 billion dollar Bataan nuclear plant was closed in 1987 without generating one watt of electricity after it was declared unsafe and inoperable.
Shifting sceptical public opinion in favour of nuclear energy also remains a mammoth task, experts say.
"Public awareness of the nuclear risks seems to outweigh its awareness of the benefits," said Hans-Holger Rogner, of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
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