Iran is still only operating several hundred centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, despite its claims to have activated 3,000 of the devices, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Thursday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced earlier this week that the Natanz facility had begun "industrial-scale" production of nuclear fuel in a major advance in Iran's uranium enrichment program, which the United Nations has demanded be halted.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator said Sunday that workers had begun injected uranium gas into a new array of 3,000 centrifuges, a large jump over the 328 centrifuges known to be operating at Natanz. Iran ultimately aims to operate more than 50,000 of the devices at the site.
But Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, played down the extent of Iran's progress at Natanz.
"Iran is still just at the beginning stages in setting up its Natanz enrichment facility. The talk of building a facility with 50,000 centrifuges is just at the beginning, and it is (currently) only in the hundreds," ElBaradei told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. IAEA inspectors visit Natanz a week ago, and two more IAEA inspectors arrived in the country on Tuesday and are due to view the facility in a few days.
Iran's claims of major progress at Natanz, made Sunday, were met by skepticism from international officials and experts, who pointed out that Iran has had difficulty keeping its smaller arrays of 328 centrifuges operating constantly.
But the announcement was a strong show of defiance to the United Nations, which has imposed sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend enrichment and has warned of more to come.
In the enrichment process, uranium gas is injected into cascades of thousands of centrifuges, which spin and purify it. If enriched to a low level, the result is fuel for a nuclear reactor. To a much higher level it can build the material for a nuclear warhead. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
1. Macanese Authorities Unblock $25 Million in North Korean Fundssu
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With the announcement by Macanese authorities April 10 that North Korean funds frozen at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) have been unblocked, the United States and most other members of the Six-Party Talks consider the issue of the frozen accounts ï¿½resolved.ï¿½
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the same day that the Macanese authorities had settled on a mechanism to unblock the BDA funds.
ï¿½[W]e shall see what the North Koreans do in reaction to this,ï¿½ he said. North Korea has delayed fulfilling its part of the February 13 agreement with the other members of the Six-Party Talks -- South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States -- until the resolution of the BDA issue.
Press reports quoted Macau Monetary Authority spokeswoman Wendy Au April 10 as confirming that the North Korean funds had been unblocked.
ï¿½The account holders or authorized parties can go to the bank and withdraw or deal with their deposits,ï¿½ Au told Kyodo News.
The U.S. Treasury Department had designated BDA as a financial institution of "prime money laundering concern" in September 2005 and issued a final rule March 14 barring U.S. financial institutions from dealing with the Macau-based bank. The Macau Monetary Authority froze $25 million worth of North Korean funds while investigating whether BDA had facilitated or engaged in illegal financial activities on North Korea's behalf, including money laundering and circulation of counterfeit U.S. currency.
ï¿½In our view, this solution [reached in Macau] conforms with international banking regulations as well as the February 13th agreement," McCormack said.
The February 13 agreement calls on North Korea to shut down its main nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon and allow international inspectors to verify the process as a first step toward disclosing and dismantling its entire nuclear infrastructure. In exchange, North Korea will receive international economic, humanitarian and energy assistance.
The North Koreans have agreed that the BDA funds ï¿½would be used to the benefit of the North Korean people and for humanitarian purposes,ï¿½ the spokesman said, adding that the other parties would be looking to Pyongyang to make good on those assurances.
ï¿½An essential element of the Six-Party Talks succeeding is the parties acting in good faith and abiding by their commitments,ï¿½ McCormack said, but he acknowledged the difficulty of monitoring North Koreaï¿½s use of the funds.
REFOCUSING ON NUCLEAR SECURITY
McCormack said the United States hopes the resolution of the BDA issue will cause the Six-Party Talks participants to return to the ï¿½core subjectï¿½ of the talks, ï¿½the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.ï¿½ To this end, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. envoy in the Six-Party Talks, is currently in the region for consultations with officials in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. Hill also will discuss plans for upcoming meetings involving all members of the Six-Party Talks, as well as the timeline for the next phase of the February 13th agreement.
ï¿½We still believe all the parties to the talks including the North Koreans should make every effort to meet the obligations under the 60-day deadline of the February 13th agreement,ï¿½ McCormack said, adding that an assessment will be forthcoming once the deadline is reached April 14.
In remarks before meeting with South Korean officials in Seoul April 10, Hill said the resolution of the BDA dispute has been ï¿½a very difficult issue to deal with,ï¿½ and that the United States has ï¿½worked very hardï¿½ in achieving an outcome.
ï¿½[C]ertainly, every day that we have to work on this banking issue is a day that we havenï¿½t worked on denuclearization, and weï¿½re coming up very close to the 60-day period,ï¿½ he said.
ï¿½Obviously, as we get closer and closer to the 60 days, and we havenï¿½t fulfilled all our tasks, one has to be concerned. But, once again, I think we have to be a little patient and see how we do in the next day or two,ï¿½ Hill said.
The assistant secretary also said North Korea can expect its external banking accounts to remain under international scrutiny ï¿½as long as the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea] is engaged in nuclear weapons production.ï¿½
A transcript of Hillï¿½s remarks can be found at the State Department Web site.
1. U.S. & Russia Agree to Sustain Security Upgrades at Nuclear Material Facilities
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U.S. and Russian officials have agreed to a plan that will help to sustain and maintain security upgrades at Russian nuclear material sites, according to the Department of Energyï¿½s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Security enhancements that the United States installed over the last 14 years at Russian nuclear sites will be preserved by Russia under the new plan.
ï¿½Ensuring that our improvements to security at Russian nuclear facilities are maintained is critical. This agreement will help to protect the security investments that we have made in Russia and, most importantly, it should ensure that the nuclear material is secure and protected over the long-term,ï¿½ said William Tobey, head of NNSAï¿½s nuclear nonproliferation programs.
Under its Material Protection Control and Accounting program, NNSA has been working throughout Russia to upgrade security and accounting measures at sites with weapons-usable nuclear material, and locations that store and deploy nuclear warheads. NNSA improves physical security at Russian sites by installing security systems, training personnel and enhancing infrastructure. NNSA also ensures that measures are implemented to control and account for the weapons, the material and the personnel in charge.
The plan by NNSA and Russiaï¿½s Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) outlines specific details for how the upgrades will be sustained so that they can be transitioned to sole Russian support for the future, as mandated by U.S. law. It covers sustainability at nuclear material sites. Separate discussions are currently underway to sustain the work performed at sites with nuclear weapons.
ï¿½Russia has a large economy, a growing nuclear industry and is our partner in combating nuclear terrorism. This joint sustainability plan is an important step forward in our cooperation and builds on our partnership with Russia to secure global stockpiles of nuclear material,ï¿½ said Tobey.
Since 1993, NNSAï¿½s programs have spent approximately $1.6 billion in Russia to enhance security for several hundreds of nuclear warheads and hundreds of metric tons of nuclear material at approximately 75 percent of Russiaï¿½s nuclear material storage and warhead sites of concern. This includes all 50 of Russiaï¿½s Navy nuclear sites, 11 of Russiaï¿½s Strategic Rocket Forces sites and over 175 buildings within the Russian nuclear complex. Work is underway at the balance of sites and will be completed by 2008.
India carried out a successful test on Thursday of its longest-range ballistic missile, the Agni III, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead more than 3,000 km (1,900 miles), scientists said.
Defense analysts say the Agni III is primarily designed to counter the military strength of China, which also has nuclear weapons, while shorter-range versions of the missile have been developed with long-time rival Pakistan in mind.
The launch of the longest-range Agni, which means "fire" in the Sanskrit language, came after a failed test last July when the missile plunged into the Bay of Bengal after take-off.
"Yes, the test was absolutely successful," W. Selvamurthy, a senior official of the Defense Research and Development Organization, which designed the missile, told Reuters.
"It took off at 10:50 a.m. (0520 GMT) and landed at 11:05 a.m.," he said. "We are absolutely satisfied with all the results and we have rectified the errors of last year's failure. It met all the target coordinates."
The missile was launched from Wheeler island off India's eastern coast.
India has around 100 to 150 nuclear warheads and staged tests in 1974 and 1998.
Independent arms control experts from 15 countries are drafting a treaty to ban production of uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons that could rival a U.S. text under consideration by the U.N.'s top disarmament body.
Frank von Hippel, a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, said Wednesday the International Panel on Fissile Materials is not only developing a draft treaty, ``but more importantly, an in-depth analysis of the verification issues associated with the treaty.''
The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty submitted by the U.S. last May omits verification measures, leaving it up to individual governments to detect and report violations by other nations.
The U.S. says it wants to improve the world's leverage against nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea while avoiding protracted negotiations over issues such as verification.
But von Hippel said verifying compliance with such a treaty shouldn't be much harder than doing so for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1970 and is aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
``And we think this can be done with reasonable cost,'' he told diplomats, U.N. staff and disarmament activists who gathered Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. Disarmament Commission's three-week meeting.
The nuclear physicist served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1994-95 and is now the panel's co-chairman.
Stephen G. Rademaker, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, urged the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament to conclude work on a new treaty by September. The U.S. proposal is still under review in the conference, the U.N.'s top arms control body.
During Wednesday's discussion, differences emerged on whether to consider a step-by-step or a wide-ranging treaty, with or without verification.
An Egyptian diplomat insisted that the nuclear powers should be subject to the same rule as non-nuclear states, and that the treaty's aim should be disarmament, not legalizing the retention of weapons by the nuclear powers.
Princeton research scientist Zia Mian, who works with the panel, said a key issue is the lack of information on the quantities of highly enriched uranium in some major countries - first and foremost Russia, but also France and China. The U.S. and Britain have declared their stockpiles, he said.
The five nuclear weapon states have all stopped producing highly-enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons, but have set aside large quantities for future military and civilian use, he said.
``We need to get a better handle on who has how much fissile material in the world,'' he said.
The U.S., Britain and Russia all use highly enriched uranium for nuclear propulsion for submarines. The U.S. also uses it for aircraft carriers and Russia for ice-breakers.
If the U.S. and Russia reduced the number of nuclear warheads in their stockpiles to 1,000, a lot less highly enriched uranium would be needed, but Mian said the continued naval demands would create problems and probably require ``extra conditions'' in a treaty.
France has moved to fuel its submarines with low-enriched uranium, he said, suggesting that Russia, the U.S. and Britain could do the same.
As for plutonium, Mian said, there are about 150 tons in weapons today, ``but there's about 100 tons that the U.S. and Russia have declared as excess to their military needs ... and there's a very large civilian stock in the world.''
A minimal treaty should subject all civilian nuclear activities by stages to international safeguards, put excess fissile material under safeguards, and ensure that highly enriched uranium for naval reactors is not diverted to weapon use, he said.
Von Hippel said a verification program would have to ensure that production facilities for highly enriched uranium and plutonium are shut down or converted to civilian use, that civilian nuclear material is not converted to weapons, that there is no clandestine or undeclared production or diversion, and that excess fissile material is not returned to weapons use, he said.
No verification is perfect, von Hippel said, but ``in my view it's much better than nothing.''
The panel, founded in January 2006 and funded with a five-year grant to Princeton by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, includes nuclear experts from Brazil, Britain, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden and the United States.
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