1. Report: Iran 2 to 3 Years Away from Building a Nuclear Weapon
Raphael G. Satter
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Iran is two to three years away from having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, a leading security think tank said Wednesday. But the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said domestic opposition to outspoken President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could still help put the brakes on its nuclear development efforts.
"There are signs that political and economic pressure is having an impact in Tehran," said John Chipman, the institute's chief executive, speaking at the launch of its annual publication, "The Military Balance."
Although Chipman said Iran could be as little as two years away from a bomb, other authorities say it could take Tehran significantly longer to reach that point.
Both John Negroponte, the head of national intelligence for the U.S., and Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have said Iran is perhaps four years from the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon.
While Iran could conceivably build a bomb in two years, a three-year time frame was more likely, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the institute. He said estimates floated by U.S. intelligence were conservative - a likely result of its chastening experience in Iraq.
"The CIA is being extra cautious these days," he said.
Chipman said Wednesday that Iran was on track to complete its goal of producing 3,000 centrifuges for producing highly-enriched uranium by the end of March or shortly thereafter. Many centrifuges had been obtained from the black market, he said.
Iran ultimately plans to expand its program to 54,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium, a metal.
Iran says it aims to produce nuclear fuel to generate electricity. But if Iran chose, it could use the massive array of centrifuges to make enough weapons-grade material for dozens of nuclear warheads a year.
Diplomats briefed on the IAEA's findings said this month that the Iranians recently finished pre-assembly work at its enrichment facility at Natanz, in central Iran, which has been built underground as protection against attack.
In enrichment plants, centrifuges are linked by pipes in what are called cascades, which cycle the gas as it is processed. For now, the only known assembled centrifuge cascades in Iran are above ground at Natanz, consisting of two linked chains of 164 machines each and two smaller setups.
The two larger cascades have been running only sporadically to produce small quantities of non-weapons grade enriched uranium, while the smaller assemblies have been underground "dry testing" since November, IAEA inspectors have reported.
The U.N. on Dec. 23 imposed sanctions on Iran for pursuing enrichment efforts, and gave it 60 days to suspend the program.
A diplomat knowledgeable about Iran's enrichment program said last week that Tehran may not be technologically advanced enough to put together thousands of centrifuges in series - work that would take months even for more developed countries.
Chipman on Wednesday agreed. "Getting the centrifuge cascades to function properly is then another task of an entirely different order of magnitude" from installing the centrifuges, he said, adding that this process could take at least a year.
Once Iran's planned 3,000-centrifuge cascade was operational, the institute predicted it would take another nine to 11 months to produce about 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough for a single weapon, he said.
Chipman also said it was possible that growing disquiet within Iran over Ahmadinejad's leadership - and the economic troubles linked to possible sanctions - may open a debate in the country on the wisdom of pursuing the nuclear program.
"Whether the internal debate will lead to a suspension in the enrichment program that would provide the basis for resumed negotiations remains to be seen," he said.
The institute is widely considered the most important security think tank outside the United States.
1. Seoul ï¿½Wonï¿½t Be Content with Nuclear Freezeï¿½ in North Korea
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Foreign Minister Song Min-soon on Wednesday said six-party talks to resume on Feb 8 aim to ï¿½eliminate all of North Koreaï¿½s nuclear programsï¿½ rather than simply return to the status quo ante of 2002 or before the second North Korean nuclear crisis. After freezing activities at a nuclear reactor under the Geneva Agreement between the U.S. and the North in 1994, North Korea started to operate the reactors again in 2003 to produce plutonium, a key material to make nuclear weapons. Pundits have said getting North Korea to freeze nuclear activities again hardly amounts to progress.
Song told reporters what the parties hope to achieve this time ï¿½will become an integral partï¿½ of a Sept. 2005 statement of principles where Pyongyang agreed to scrap its nuclear program completely. ï¿½Early measures we aim for in the upcoming round should be agreed based on full implementation of the ï¿½ statement,ï¿½ Song said. "We still have a long way to go before adopting a joint statement, though we have gone through a lot of discussions and fine-tuning among the nations involved. Although we hope the countries will adopt a joint written agreement, we will only be able to know if they can reach agreement on everything when we start the negotiation process."
Meanwhile, John Negroponte, just nominated as deputy U.S. secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that the purpose of the six-party talks is to put a freeze on the Northï¿½s nuclear reactors and nuclear enrichment reprocessing facilities and to launch an international investigation. He said he ï¿½certainly wouldn't rule out" the possibility of a visit to North Korea by the U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill if progress is made.
Following talks in Beijing between U.S. Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Glaser and North Korean officials that were aimed at resolving the dispute over North Koreaï¿½s counterfeiting of U.S. currency, a source close to the North Korean government informed Reuters on Wednesday, 31 January 2007, that, ï¿½North Korea will feel compelled to announce plans for another nuclear test if the financial dispute with Washington is not resolved.ï¿½
Secretary Glaser told Reuters that U.S. Secret Service presented North Korean officials with their findings on the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. The North Korean source stated that "The United States has no evidence, just like it had no evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.ï¿½
The source told Reuters that, "If the United States does not resolve it, North Korea will have no choice but to announce at the six-party talks that it plans to conduct another [nuclear] testï¿½ if the United States does not resolve it [counterfeiting dispute], North Korea would be a 'sinner' taking part in the six-party talks ... North Korea would have no face and could not be on equal footing with the other parties at the six-party talks.ï¿½
On 15 September 2005, the US Treasury labeled Banco Delta Asia, Macao, as a "primary money laundering concern" in response to illicit North Korean activities. According to Arms Control Today, a publication by the Arms Control Association, the U.S. believes that Banco Delta Asia provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies involved in drug trafficking, the distribution of counterfeit U.S. currency, and smuggling of counterfeit tobacco products and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. government froze $24 million in North Korean accounts.
1. Russia Will Respond Effectively to U.S. Missile Defense
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Russia will develop an effective response to United States plans to deploy missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.
"We must think, and are thinking, of ways to ensure our national security," Putin said at an annual Kremlin live televised news conference with Russian and foreign journalists. "All our responses will be asymmetric but highly effective," he said.
Washington officially proposed January 20 placing a radar network in the Czech Republic, and two days later announced plans to start formal talks with Poland on the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems on its territory.
The U.S. argued that defenses in Europe could intercept possible intercontinental ballistic missiles from 'rogue' regimes, such as Iran and North Korea.
But Putin said Washington's arguments to deploy anti-missile systems closer to Russian borders were not convincing.
"Our specialists do not think that missile defense systems being deployed in East European countries are meant to prevent threats from Iran or from terrorists," Putin said. "What kind of terrorists? Do terrorists have ballistic [missile] weapons?"
He added that Russia also knows well all the possible ballistic missile flight trajectories from Iran.
"That is why such [U.S.] arguments seem unsubstantial to us," the president said. "This all concerns us directly and will result in a proper reaction [from Russia]. As I have already said, all our responses will be asymmetric but highly effective."
The Russian president also said that Russia's policy of increasing military defense power was not connected with U.S. plans for the deployment of missile defenses in Europe.
"The [U.S.] plans were announced long before we started building up our [military] power," Putin said, adding that defense spending in Russia is 25 times less than in the United States.
On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it would spend over 860 billion rubles ($32.42 billion) of federal budget funds in 2007, 23% more than in 2006. Military spending will account for 16% of overall federal budget expenditure.
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) will simultaneously construct four more breeder reactors of 500 MWe each including two at Kalpakkam, said Baldev Raj, Director of the India Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam.
The site for the other two reactors had not been firmed up yet. A Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) of 500 MWe was already under construction at Kalpakkam "and we stand by our commitment to commission the PFBR in September 2010," he said.
The electricity generated from the PFBR would be sold to the State Electricity Boards at Rs.3.22 a unit. The pre-project activities for the construction of the second and third breeder reactors at Kalpakkam would begin in 2010 and they would go critical in 2017. The tariff for the electricity generated from these would be Rs.2.50 a unit. The Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), a public sector undertaking of the DAE, would build all the breeder reactors in India. The four new breeder reactors would cost Rs.2,500 crore each.
The new breeders would first use mixed uranium-plutonium oxide as fuel and later switch over to metallic fuel. "We can breed much faster with the metallic fuel. By 2020, the technology of making the metallic fuel will be ready," the IGCAR Director said. The IGCAR has fathered the breeder reactor technology in India.
Dr. Baldev Raj was speaking to reporters at the end of a one-day awareness workshop on research and career opportunities for physicists and chemists held at the Queen Mary's College by the IGCAR. "By 2020, we will have totally five breeder reactors and we will be the world leader in breeder technology," he asserted.
The civil construction of the PFBR at Kalpakkam "had reached a high level" and the building of the reactor containment vault was nearing completion. The safety vessel, the main vessel and the inner vessel were under an advanced stage of fabrication. The safety vessel would be lowered into the reactor vault by April 2007. Most of the clearances for the PFBR had been obtained from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and "there will be no major difficulty in commissioning this reactor by 2010," Dr. Baldev Raj said. The IGCAR's efforts were to ensure that its facilities were fully used by researchers and scientists and he was "amazed" by the number of students who were keen on pursuing a career in science. The IGCAR was a constituent unit of the Homi Bhabha National University and the IGCAR had 15 Ph.D. students working on `separation science and technology,' virtual reality, sensors, structural mechanics and so on.
P.V. Ramalingam, Director, Reactor Operation and Maintenance Group, IGCAR, said the Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam, which had completed 20 years of operation, could be operated for another 20 years with modifications. These modifications would cost Rs.40 crore. The capacity of the FBTR, which is a forerunner to the PFBR, would be stepped up to 20 MWt in a year's time. The FBTR's total capacity is 40 MWt. Prof. Eugenie Pinto, Principal, Queen Mary's College, wanted the IGCAR to set up a centre in the field of material science which would be available to students and researchers from Chennai.
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