1. Iran Installs 328 Centrifuges, Prepares for Test Runs
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Iran has installed two cascades of 164 centrifuges each in its underground nuclear plant, laying a basis for full-scale enrichment of uranium and upping the stakes in a standoff with the West, European diplomats said yesterday.
The cascades were to be test-run shortly, without uranium feedstock inside, and fuel material would then be added if the tests were successful, they said.
The 328 centrifuges would be the vanguard of 3,000 planned for installation in the coming months.
Tehran recently finished installing piping, electrical cables and other equipment needed to begin "industrial-scale" enrichment in the vast subterranean complex, which is fortified and ringed by anti-aircraft guns in the central Iranian desert.
Firing up the cascades would dramatically sharpen Iran's confrontation with Western powers that pushed through limited UN sanctions on Tehran six weeks ago to try to curb what they suspect is a disguised effort to assemble atomic bombs.
The Islamic Republic, the world's No. 4 oil producer, says it wants solely civilian atomic energy from uranium enrichment.
Diplomats said the installation of the first two cascades was likely to be the gist of Iran's planned announcement of "significant" nuclear progress on Sunday, when it caps anniversary celebrations of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"Two cascades have been installed in the underground plant, but they are not yet being run with gas," said an EU diplomat in Vienna, headquarters of the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has inspectors at Natanz.
"Their plan is to start dry-spinning the cascades within days and then start feeding them with UF6 [uranium feedstock gas]," the diplomat said, alluding to findings during recent visits by IAEA inspectors.
"The Iranians appear to intend to have about six cascades [about 1,000 centrifuges] installed by the spring, and the rest of the 3,000 by around June," the diplomat said. Iran plans to rig up a total of 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz in the longer term. A diplomat from another EU state gave an identical account.
Diplomats also said that the US and other Western nations want considerable cuts in the UN nuclear agency's aid to Iran but face stiff opposition from non-aligned states.
Developing nations "worry that what happens to Iran could be a precedent for the future" of their own aid programs, a non-aligned diplomat at the IAEA said.
The diplomat was speaking ahead of a report expected this week from IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei on how much technical aid the agency would continue to supply Iran.
The IAEA's 35-nation board of governors is to meet on the issue starting on March 5.
A US envoy said this week's talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons could discuss economic incentives for Pyongyang, but Japan ruled out funding a deal without progress in a dispute over kidnapped Japanese.
US negotiator Christopher Hill, in Tokyo ahead of six-nation talks that resume Thursday in Beijing, renewed his demand that North Korea take concrete steps to implement a September 2005 agreement to give up atomic weapons.
North Korea made the pledge in exchange for economic aid and security guarantees, but tested its first atom bomb a little more than a year later.
"I think clearly we will have to move as soon as possible to implementation" of the agreement, Hill told reporters Tuesday, calling for North Korea to take "a very strong, clear step" within weeks of the Beijing talks.
Hill has declined to confirm a Japanese press report that North Korea had demanded oil shipments in return for freezing its reactor. But he noted that the 2005 deal involved energy and economic assistance.
"I have not discussed any details of this at all in my bilateral consultations with the DPRK, although I think it is quite possible that it will come up in the six-party context this weekend," Hill said, referring to the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The Asahi Shimbun reported Sunday that North Korea had told US officials it wanted 500,000 tons of oil a year in exchange for shutting down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. But Japan, the region's largest economy, made clear it would not automatically foot the bill of a deal with North Korea.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso told Hill that "there is a limit to the measures that our country can take under the current circumstances as North Korea is not acting sincerely to solve pending issues between Japan and North Korea including the abduction issue," a foreign ministry statement said.
North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies. It returned five of them to Japan along with their families and said the other eight had died.
But Japan believes they are still alive and suspects even more Japanese nationals were kidnapped and are being kept under wraps because they know too many secrets about the North's Stalinist regime.
The issue rouses deep anger in Japan, which has sometimes irked other nations by insisting on raising the matter during the six-nation talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
Asked about Tokyo's reluctance to fund a deal with North Korea, Hill said he hoped "the US and Japan can work together."
"The six-party talks present a very broad platform on which we are trying to address a number of issues, not only issues related to bilateral concerns but also issued related to denuclearisation," he said.
Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's envoy to the talks, said Tokyo was committed to raising the abduction issue again.
"It is important to move ahead on the abduction issue as part of efforts to move the whole six-party process ahead. The United States fully understands this point," Sasae said after talks with Hill.
1. Georgia, US Sign Deal to Combat Nuclear Smuggling
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Georgia and the United States have signed an agreement to cooperate in the fight against the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive materials.
The agreement was signed at a ceremony in Tbilisi on February 2 by Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili and the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft.
Under the accord, reports say the United States will provide Georgian experts with equipment and training to help combat nuclear smuggling.
Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili said Georgia hopes to raise to similar levels its anti-smuggling cooperation with neighboring countries, including Russia.
"Georgia has shown enthusiasm, shown commitment, to be part of the group of countries that aggressively stands against the proliferation," he said. "We wish to have the same kind of agreement with neighbors, and that was my appeal, that we need the same level of engagement and interaction with all neighbors, including Russia."
The signing of the accord came after Georgia last week announced it had last year arrested a Russian citizen who tried to sell weapons-grade uranium to Georgian government agents.
1. Debris, Ice and Low Tide Cause Water Problems for Indian Point
THE JOURNAL NEWS
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Debris, ice and low tides were apparently to blame yesterday morning for clogging up the Hudson River intake system of Indian Point 3, leaving the plant with lower-than-normal levels of water to cool pumps and other machinery.
The incident was serious enough for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, the plant's owner and operator, to declare it an "unusual event," the lowest of four emergency classifications.
"There was never any threat to the public," said Susan Tolchin, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano's chief adviser. "Entergy handled it in an appropriate manner. However, this brings up the issue once again that this nuclear power plant should not be located in Westchester County, in a highly populated area."
Across the river, Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef called for more frequent maintenance of the intake system, which Rockland officials said they were told was tuned up twice a year.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy officials gave this account of yesterday's incident:
At 5:53 a.m., control room operators at Indian Point 3 received an alarm indicating a problem with rotating screens that strain debris from the billions of gallons of Hudson River water cycled through the plants daily to cool its non-radioactive parts. Four minutes later, the pumps that are used to wash debris off the screens stopped working because of low-water levels. The river was at low tide and the near-freezing temperature of the river itself led to speculation that ice was blocking the intake.
By 7:07 a.m., water reservoir levels subsided to 4 1/2 feet below mean sea level, triggering the requirement to notify the NRC and emergency officials from Westchester and the surrounding counties.
A rising tide restored the water levels for the pumps, and the emergency designation was removed at 10:14 a.m.
Entergy planned yesterday to send divers into the water to clean the lower parts of the screens so that low tides wouldn't create similar problems.
Entergy officials said that the incident did not affect the operation of Indian Point 3. Vanderhoef's spokeswoman, C.J. Miller, said the plant needs to figure out a more effective way to keep the screens clear of debris.
"If this was weather-related, that's one thing," Miller said. "But if it's an ongoing maintenance issue, it needs to be addressed."
Entergy spokesman Jim Steets said the screen were cleaned in November and the plant backwashes its system monthly to clear debris as well.
"This wasn't debris by itself, so I don't think maintenance is an issue at all," Steets said. "I think it's a matter of two extremes - low tide and low temperature - combining with normal amounts of debris."
Steets said he wasn't sure of the frequency of the screen-cleaning program other than the monthly backwashes.
Rep. John Hall, D-Dover Plains, said the event made him question the overall safety of the nuclear plant.
"If a bunch of debris from the river is all it takes to cause an emergency at Indian Point, imagine what could happen during equipment malfunctions or, God forbid, a terrorist attack," Hall said. "This only underscores the importance of carefully scrutinizing the plant's proposed relicensing and moving full-speed ahead on the development of alternative forms of energy that are safe and renewable."
India's key negotiator on the civil nuclear deal with the United States, Shyam Saran, wound up talks with senior officials on the next steps to be taken for implementing the deal.
Saran, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special envoy on the deal, met President George Bush's National Security Advisor Steve Hadley Friday after another round of discussions with his American counterpart, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns.
Saran-Burns parleys focused on the conceptual issues that have an impact and bearing on the negotiations on the implementing 123 agreement that would resume nuclear trade between the two countries after 30 years.
The Indian envoy is believed to have conveyed to his interlocutors India's continued concerns over certain "extraneous and prescriptive" provisions of the US law relating to India's Iran policy, NSG transfer guidelines and a joint scientific cooperative nuclear non-proliferation programme.
Although the US has conveyed that certain sections of the US law outlining the 'Sense of Congress' and policy guidelines are 'non-binding', India is still concerned over provisions relating to conditional access to reprocessing technology and reprocessing of spent fuel.
New Delhi is also not ready to accept any legally binding provision on future nuclear testing in the bilateral agreement, Saran has said. Nor would it agree to fissile material controls under any bilateral pact, but only within a multilateral framework.
Apart from the bilateral agreement with US, India also has to work to do on an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for safeguards on its civilian nuclear power reactors and get an exemption from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
When finalised the 123 agreement has to again go to the US congress now controlled by Democrats for a fast track 'up or down' vote. The Congress can either approve or reject it in total within a specified time frame, but can't offer amendments.
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