1. Russia Favors International Nuclear Centers under IAEA Control
Russian News and Information Agency
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Russia supports the establishment of international nuclear fuel enrichment centers under the control of international organizations, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday.
On the eve of his visit to India, Putin gave an interview to the Indian television channel Doordarshan and the PTI news agency.
"We believe it is necessary to establish a network of international centers for nuclear fuel enrichment under the control of international organizations, above all, of course, of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. Within the framework of these centers, in our opinion, equal, non-discriminatory and democratic access must be provided to technologies and materials, while simultaneously complying with the principles and requirements of [nuclear] non-proliferation," Putin said.
The Russian president said Russia and India have been long-standing partners in the civilian nuclear energy sector.
"Our country has done a great deal for the development of the Indian nuclear energy industry," Putin said.
According to the Russian president, all countries have the right to access modern technologies.
"Besides, according to expert opinion, it will be impossible to solve the energy problems faced by many countries without nuclear energy," Putin said.
The problem, however, is to comply with the non-proliferation regime regulating weapons of mass destruction, the Russian president said.
"That refers not only to India, but to many other so-called "threshold" countries. And that is why when we discuss, for instance, the Iranian nuclear issue, we must think of it as a universal rather than as an isolated case. Russia has its own proposals on that score," Putin said.
The Russian president also said Russia wants to be a country that is an equal among equals on the international scene, rather than a superpower.
"When there is talk these days that Russia seeks that [superpower] status, I see only one thing in that -- a desire to undermine trust in Russia, to use Russia to spread fear and foster the image of an enemy," Putin said.
Putin said that Russia stands for a multi-polar world, for a democratic world order, and for the strengthening of the system of international law.
Iran is barring 38 nuclear agency inspectors from entering the country in retaliation for a UN resolution aiming to curb Tehran's nuclear program, a senior Iranian lawmaker said Monday.
The announcement came only days after Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's most senior dissident cleric, criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant stance against the West on the nuclear issue in a speech Friday, calling it provocative. His comments were the first direct public attack on the president's nuclear policy by such a senior cleric.
There appears to be an increasingly open debate in Iran over how forcefully to confront the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions, even as the government continues to defend them.
Two hard-line newspapers, including one owned by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have already called on the president to stay out of all nuclear matters. Montazeri said that Iran has the right to nuclear technology, but questioned the way Ahmadinejad has confronted the West.
"One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom," he said. "We should not provoke the enemy, otherwise the country will be faced with problems."
Montazeri was once in line to become Iran's supreme religious leader until he was banished and put under house arrest for his criticisms. His comments reflect the growing concern in Iran over additional economic sanctions if Iran continues to defy the international demand to halt its uranium enrichment program.
Iran also conducted missile tests Monday as its leadership stepped up warnings of a possible military confrontation with the United States.
Over the past few days, hard-line newspapers have threatened suicide attacks against American targets and said missiles fired from Iran would turn Israel into "a scorching hell" if the U.S. takes military action.
The UN Security Council passed the resolution Dec. 23 and imposed sanctions banning the trade of goods related to Iran's nuclear program. It also gave Iran a deadline of two months to halt its uranium enrichment program or face tougher sanctions.
In response, Iran's parliament passed a bill last month calling on the government to limit its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"The committee has decided to bar 38 inspectors from coming to Iran and we have announced the new limitation to the agency," said Alaedin Boroujerdi, the head of parliament's committee for foreign policy and national security, the ISNA news agency reported.
The nuclear agency's inspectors have visited Iran's nuclear facilities regularly. But last summer Iran said that it had decided not to let some of the inspectors return.
Still, Boroujerdi said that Iran planned to continue its cooperation with the agency, and that Iran would remain a party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Melissa Flemming, an IAEA spokeswoman, said the agency is confident that it could continue to monitor Iran's nuclear program, noting, "There are a sufficient number of inspectors designated for Iran."
In Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers called on all countries to enforce the sanctions against Iran.
Pyongyang has agreed to suspend all its activities in the nuclear sphere, including its reactor in the Yongbyon research centre and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts to conduct monitoring of its atomic facilities as the first step towards dismantling its nuclear programme. Such agreements were reached at talks in Berlin between the US and North Korean chief negotiators at the six-sided Korean Peninsula denuclearisation talks, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported here on Monday.
During the consultations held in Berlin in recent days, head of the North Korean delegation Kim Gye-gwan told US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher R. Hill that in exchange for this move the North hopes to get from the United States economic and energy assistance, as well as guarantees that Washington will unfreeze North Koreaï¿½s accounts in Banco Delta Asia in Aomen (Macau) worth 24 million US dollars.
The issue on the American sanctions lifting will be discussed during separate bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea schedule for February. Pyongyang will start the fulfilment of its obligations after all conditions of the agreements are coordinated at the next round of the six-party talks that are planned to be resumed in early February. Pyongyang and Washington have also agreed to use the term ï¿½monitoringï¿½ instead of ï¿½inspection.ï¿½
Chosun Ilbo writes that the North demanded from the United States to consider the issue of the transformation of the truce that put an end to the Korean War of 1950-1953 into a peace treaty parallel to the implementation of the above initial agreements, to which the American side has given a positive answer. The two Koreas are still technically in a state of war.
1. U.S. Should Rethink Yucca--Retiring NRC Commissioner
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The United States may need "to go back to the beginning" in its efforts to build a national spent reactor fuel repository, and abandon the beleaguered Yucca Mountain project in Nevada in favor of a new repository plan at a different location, retiring Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Edward McGaffigan said Monday.
"It may be time to stop digging" at Yucca, said McGaffigan, explaining that he thought the project has been undermined by "bad law, bad regulatory policy, bad personnel policy...bad budget policy" and other problems "throughout its history."
"Realistically, we should probably be starting to look at new sites," said McGaffigan, the longest-serving NRC commissioner with more than 10 years of service. McGaffigan recently announced that he will leave NRC for health reasons as soon as President Bush finds a replacement.
Speaking at a press conference sponsored by Platts, McGaffigan spoke expansively about the challenges NRC faces--particularly given current federal budget constraints--as U.S. utilities consider building up to 29 new reactors in the coming years. The buzz of activity comes after a long period of relative dormancy for the U.S. nuclear industry, which has not ordered a new nuclear reactor since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.
In assessing the surge of interest, McGaffigan described a handful of merchant generator proposals to build new reactors as "among the most serious" of the proposed projects that he sees on the horizon.
But McGaffigan's most extensive comments were on how the nation should move ahead in finding a long-term solution for defense-related high-level waste and radioactive spent fuel rods currently building up at dozens of commercial reactor sites nationwide.
Broadly speaking, he noted that experts worldwide for years have generally agreed that geologic burial is the best way to manage spent fuel and said that developing those repositories is not impossible.
As examples, he cited Finland's progress in siting a national repository, and U.S. success years in ago in building the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground disposal facility for transuranic waste in New Mexico.
McGaffigan also had warm praise for Edward "Ward" Sproat, director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which is responsible for developing Yucca. In Sproat and his colleagues, "DOE has the best people they have ever had running this program," McGaffigan said Monday.
But McGaffigan said DOE's efforts to develop Yucca have been badly hampered over the years by frequent changeover in Yucca leadership, inconsistent funding and ineffective legislative attempts to fix problems with the program, among other challenges.
Taken together, those types of problems are likely to continue delaying Yucca, McGaffigan said, noting that when he arrived at NRC in 1996 Yucca was scheduled to open in 2010.
"I arrived at the commission 14 years from the alleged opening date of Yucca, and I leave the commission 20 years from the alleged opening date," said McGaffigan, citing recent DOE projections Yucca could open between 2025 and 2027.
To take control of the spent fuel problem, McGaffigan said it might make sense to form a government corporation, whose leaders would be picked by a board of directors and would not need congressional approval. That would provide for more leadership stability over time, and insulate the leaders somewhat from political forces, he said.
McGaffigan described the plan as a "government-owned back-of-the-fuel-cycle corporation `a la TVA," referring to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Former TVA Chairman Craven Crowell has also called for formation of a government corporation to manage U.S. spent fuel, McGaffigan noted.
McGaffigan said such a corporation could also assume responsibility for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), the Bush administration's marquee nuclear recycling initiative.
Among other goals, GNEP is aimed at restarting spent fuel processing in the United States, a process that extracts elements of spent fuel and re-manufactures it into new fuel. Ideally, that also reduces the volume and toxicity of high-level waste that would need to be buried.
McGaffigan said reprocessing could help the nation manage its spent fuel once the underlying technologies are fully developed, but that "GNEP is not going to come in and save the day" in the near term.
The U.S. nuclear power industry is planning for a renaissance, drawing up its first applications to build nuclear plants since the 1970s.
Just a decade ago, many energy executives didn't think nuclear power had much of a future. Strict regulations had led to costly downtime for reactors. The public showed little interest in betting billions on new plants.
Instead of fading away, the industry launched a revival, using a friendlier political climate to spur a regulatory overhaul.
Rules that had led to lengthy investigations and plant shutdowns became less restrictive. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission started embracing industry efforts to create alternative, less costly regulations.
Today, the turnaround is nearly complete. The electricity output of the nation's remaining 103 reactors is at or near record highs.
Republicans and Democrats - and a growing number of environmentalists - are embracing nuclear power as a critical response to global warming and reliance on unstable oil suppliers. And Wall Street is slowly warming up to the idea of new construction.
The change in direction came in large part by reshaping a regulatory environment that often meant the difference between a profit and loss - and whether a plant could afford to operate.
Some industry critics say the regulatory changes have lowered safety standards, increasing the risk to the public.
Lessons from past accidents and near-misses, they say, are being written off.
"It's a must for this industry to lower its costs in an increasingly competitive electricity market," said Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nonprofit group that opposes nuclear power. "That comes at a cost to public safety, health and security."
The industry slowly won over key lawmakers and regulators in the 1990s by making the case that many of the prescriptive rules created earlier for a nascent industry imposed heavy burdens without much of a safety benefit.
Central to the effort was reassessing the risk of accidents and breakdowns based on a plant's history and industry experience, rather than trying to protect against an unlikely "perfect storm" scenario.
"You can focus on what really matters and get some cost reductions at the same time," said Tony Pietrangelo, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group.
The effort helped to improve the industry's overall operational performance dramatically. Unplanned reactor shutdowns for six months or more dropped from more than 120 reactor months in 1997 to 10 months or less for most of this decade, according to NRC figures.
Sharp drops in refueling times and offline maintenance sent capacity factors - a measure of a plant's efficiency - from 71 percent in 1997 to more than 90 percent today, government data show. And the average cost of producing a kilowatt-hour of nuclear power fell 28 percent to 1.72 cents in 2005 from 2.38 cents in 1997.
The performance won nuclear plants credibility as a reliable source of power, setting the stage for new construction.
More than 30 new reactors are under consideration nationwide.
Dallas-based TXU Corp. has said it's interested in building as many as six new reactors, likely to include an expansion of its Comanche Peak plant southwest of Dallas.
Nuclear developers are betting on a new generation of technology to avoid past licensing and construction delays. They're also counting on a more accommodating regulatory environment.
Critics of nuclear power warn that the bullish environment could end with a single accident. An accident in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., led to a public backlash and widespread cancellations of new projects.
They cite one of the most recent close calls, in 2002, when workers at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio found a football-size hole in the nuclear reactor vessel head caused by a boric acid leak. If the hole had opened up, it could've caused a meltdown.
The NRC's inspector general later found that the agency's staff had accepted a request from the plant operator, FirstEnergy Corp., to continue operating to avoid financial losses from a shutdown.
Watchdog groups say that's part of the risk that comes from relaxing requirements.
"The NRC is trusting the plant owners more and more to get it right," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Davis-Besse and some of the others show what happens when that trust is misplaced."
Industry officials criticized FirstEnergy and maintained that it wasn't representative of conditions at other reactors. They say that safety has only improved under the newer approach of allocating resources based on risk.
Lawmakers and other government officials who support nuclear power have pushed to ease the regulatory burden since the early 1990s. The first Bush administration and the Clinton administration supported plans to cut regulations across the government.
The industry regained congressional support as environmental concerns grew; by the end of the decade, leading lawmakers were threatening to slash the NRC's budget if it didn't ease its grip on the industry.
By the late 1990s, the industry was proposing regulatory changes and in many cases attaching figures of cost savings, part of the "risk-informed" approach of focusing on what's probable rather than simply possible.
For instance, revamping the regulations for emergency core cooling systems in a reactor could save $3 million per unit, according to one Nuclear Energy Institute estimate.
Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear power, calls the overhaul over the last decade a "regulatory retreat" in the face of industry pressure.
Riccio said the industry's efforts to deregulate technical specifications - rules for equipment operations and testing at a plant - led the NRC to remove 40 percent of the "stop signs" that would force a plant to shut down.
"The public is going to be exposed to more risk, while the industry is exposed to less regulation," he said.
The NRC and industry faced a barrage of criticism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Nuclear plant owners accused the agency of using vague guidelines, imposing unreasonable requirements or meddling beyond their scope. The NRC took heat from lawmakers and the public for not always enforcing the rules it created.
Some of the decades-long battles, such as how to protect against fires inside a plant, are still being resolved today.
A 1975 incident at Alabama's Browns Ferry nuclear facility exposed how nuclear plants are vulnerable to fire. A worker using a candle set cables ablaze, with a fire that burned for seven hours and shorted out the plant's backup safety systems.
In the years that followed, the NRC created regulations requiring protection of at least one set of equipment needed to shut down a plant safely. Dozens of plants failed to comply with the requirements. Some utilities used fire barriers that turned out to be faulty. Many sought exemptions from the NRC to use manual actions - a worker physically pulling breakers during a fire, for instance.
The industry argued that the rules were applied regardless of the chance of a fire in a particular location, and sought a new standard - being implemented today - based on the likely risk of ignition of a piece of equipment at a particular plant.
The new standard, which 41 plants say they plan to adopt, is "the best thing that's happened to fire protection," said Alex Marion, the Nuclear Energy Institute's executive director for nuclear operations and engineering.
Nuclear reactors that accept the new system would be given a pass for not being compliant with the original rules. NRC and industry officials say it's a common-sense approach to solving a longstanding problem.
"You try to shift the focus ... to what's really important to safety as opposed to your compliance requirements," said Sunil Weerakkody, chief of the NRC's fire-protection branch.
Gunter, of the nuclear watchdog group NIRS, said the reliance on probabilities should not be a primary protection "particularly in a post-9-11 world."
"These are all backdoor approaches ... rather than state-of-the-art fire-protection features," he said.
TXU was among the companies cited for fire-safety violations, receiving notice of noncompliance in 1998. A TXU spokesman says the company is now in compliance - without signing on to the new rule - and had no fire-safety violations in the NRC's last inspection there in 2005.
Even as many companies are looking toward the next round of plants, the regulatory overhaul is starting to draw attention from activists from the last era.
Among the NRC's new rules is one that allows nuclear operators to reclassify safety-related parts. The move would allow existing plants to purchase less-expensive commercial-grade parts instead of the nuclear-grade materials that were previously required.
Three senior engineers inside the NRC protested the rule, saying it could not provide adequate assurances of protecting public safety. But the changes were ultimately passed over their objections.
For Steve Comley, a nuclear activist now living in Florida, the new standards - that plants could voluntarily adopt - draw parallels to the problem of substandard and counterfeit parts in nuclear power plants in the 1980s.
At the time, 72 out of the nation's 113 licensed reactors were found to have parts such as fasteners, valves and circuit breakers that did not conform to their safety specifications. Some were provided by counterfeit suppliers that later faced criminal charges.
The industry says the parts were replaced. But Comley says the issue lost attention in the late 1990s and never received the full inspection that was promised.
"They haven't proved the plants are safe," said Comley, whose group, We the People, drew attention to the counterfeit parts issue. "They don't want to know. If that isn't putting safety second to the profits of the industry, I don't know what is."
Comley has spent the last year gathering dozens of letters of support from activists around the country in a bid for a congressional investigation of nuclear plants' parts and the NRC's new regulatory stance.
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