Russia has started building the world's first floating nuclear power station, officials said, a project anti-nuclear activists say is the most dangerous to come out of the atomic sector for a decade.
Russia hopes to export the power plants for use in seas from the Indian Ocean to the Arctic. The first floating station is due to be ready in 2010 and there are plans to build six more.
Russian officials say the stations are a safe way to supply power to desolate regions and the energy-hungry economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America without risking the proliferation of nuclear know how.
Sergei Ivanov, Russia's powerful first deputy prime minister, this week presided over the start of work on the first floating station at a secret submarine plant on the White Sea.
"Many countries are beginning to ask us 'when can we buy these plants?'" Ivanov was quoted as saying by Rosenergoatom, the agency which runs Russia's nuclear power stations and is footing the bill for building the plants.
"This is the most dangerous project that has been launched by the atomic sector in the whole world over the past decade," Ivan Blokov, campaign director of Greenpeace Russia, said.
"It is scary as this is basically going to be a floating atomic bomb," he told Reuters.
President Vladimir Putin last year approved the biggest revamp of the Russian nuclear industry since the Chernobyl accident, which curbed the Kremlin's appetite for atomic energy.
The explosion of reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine -- then part of the Soviet Union -- on April 26, 1986, spewed radioactive dust over much of Europe.
But Kremlin leaders now see the development of the nuclear sector as a way to boost Russian clout on the world stage.
Ivanov on Sunday unveiled Russia's first new generation nuclear submarine since the fall of the Soviet Union. The submarine will enter service in the Northern Fleet, based at Severomorsk, 930 miles north of Moscow.
The 9-billion-rouble ($352-million) floating nuclear stations will have two nuclear reactors, which use uranium enriched to a maximum of 20 percent. Total capacity will be 70 megawatts and the stations will also desalinate sea water.
Nuclear officials say the reactors, used by atomic icebreakers, are sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes.
They say the reactor powering the Kursk nuclear submarine survived intact despite a blast which sunk the vessel in August 2000 with the loss of all 118 crew.
"The reactor (on the Kursk) was put through an incredible trial but afterwards experts said it could have been immediately restarted," Russian nuclear chief Sergei Kiriyenko was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.
The first power plant will be named "Academician Lomonosov". Mikhail Lomonosov was an 18th-century Russian scientist who achieved worldwide acclaim for his work in chemistry and physics and was founder of Moscow's state university.
Customers could include Russian state controlled gas giant Gazprom, the northern region of Chukotka and countries from Namibia to Indonesia, industry sources told Reuters.
Russia's leading physicist, Yevgeny Velikhov, predicted high demand: "It will be like an order for an aircraft -- want a nuclear power station? Then order one."
1. Atomic Agency Confirms Advances by Iranï¿½s Nuclear Program
David E. Sanger
New York Times
(for personal use only)
Iran has now begun enriching small amounts of uranium in more than 1,300 centrifuges at a newly opened underground site at its main nuclear complex, the International Atomic Energy Agencyï¿½s top inspector said Wednesday.
The information, contained in a letter from the inspector to Iran, provided the first official confirmation of Iranï¿½s boast that the country had made significant technical progress in recent weeks, in defiance of United Nationsï¿½ resolutions aimed at curbing the Iranian nuclear program.
The details of Iranï¿½s progress that were spelled out in the letter, obtained through a European diplomat, lend some credence to Iranï¿½s contention that it will soon have installed 3,000 of the centrifuges, which can be used to provide nuclear fuel to power reactors, or can produce fuel for a weapon.
If Iran can get that many centrifuges running, experts say, it could possibly produce enough fuel for a weapon within about a year. But so far there is no evidence that Iran is enriching the nuclear material at the level needed to produce a weapon, and American officials said the amount of fuel now being fed into the system was so small that it might simply indicate that the Iranians were trying a test run with the delicate machinery.
In the past, Iran has had tremendous difficulty keeping all the machines spinning together in what is known as a cascade, a process that results in enriched uranium.
The confirmation came in a confidential letter sent by the agencyï¿½s deputy director general and its chief inspector, Olli Heinonen, to a top Iranian official complaining that inspectors had not been given sufficient access to some Iranian facilities.
By moving forward with the assembly of the centrifuges, the Iranian government is in a contest of wills with the United Nations Security Council, which has demanded full suspension of the enrichment program. This month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that if the West did not end pressure on Iran to halt uranium production, Iran would consider halting cooperation with the agency. He said that the West ï¿½should know that the Iranian nation will defend its right and that this path is irreversible.ï¿½
In private, some American officials say Iranï¿½s hand may be strengthened by its calculation that, with the United States distracted across the border in Iraq, Mr. Bush has no stomach for a confrontation. White House officials say that is a misreading of Mr. Bushï¿½s mind, and that the United States plans to increase gradually the severity of sanctions against Iran, in the hope that it will prompt pressure on Mr. Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners in the government.
On Wednesday evening, Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said that ï¿½the I.A.E.A.ï¿½s letter to Iran shows the Iranian government continues to defy the international community.ï¿½
ï¿½The letter also indicates that Iran is obstructing the I.A.E.A.ï¿½s inspection requests,ï¿½ Mr. Johndroe added. ï¿½While the government of Iran sees this as an advance, this is unfortunately a step backward for the Iranian people.ï¿½
He added that ï¿½Iran looks like it may be headed for additional resolutionsï¿½ at the United Nations.
The Security Council announced a new set of sanctions in March, and gave Iran 60 days to comply. But at the speed at which Iranï¿½s workers are installing centrifuges, diplomats and outside experts say, it is possible that Iran will have many more cascades operating by the time the agency is supposed to issue its next report on the status of the Iranian effort, in late May.
Iranï¿½s decision to deploy the centrifuges appears to be a victory, at least for now, for hard-liners in the government who have warned that to suspend uranium enrichment would be a surrender to the United States and Europe. But American officials have been hoping to use each Iranian announcement to prompt Russia and China, which have been most resistant to severe sanctions, to agree to a series of tougher resolutions.
A South Korean intelligence official said yesterday that increased activity had been spotted at North Korea's nuclear reactor, which local media has said could suggest it is being closed down.
A US official, however, said that Washington had not seen any sign North Korea had begun mothballing its Yongbyon nuclear plant -- the source of weapons-grade plutonium -- as required under a Feb. 13 disarmament agreement.
"We have seen unusual activity around the nuclear reactor so we are currently following and analyzing this," said an official with the National Intelligence Service, South Korea's chief intelligence agency. The official asked that he not be named.
But he added the government did not conclude that this meant, as some local media reports had suggested, that Pyongyang was taking steps to finally shut down the reactor.
The Dong-A Ilbo daily earlier quoted sources as saying satellite photographs showed increased vehicle and personnel movements near the North's reactor site.
The US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said news reports in South Korean media are "just not accurate. . . . We have seen no actions on the North Koreans' part that at this point leads us to believe they are fulfilling their part of the 60-day actions".
Egyptian authorities said yesterday they had smashed a spy ring working for Israel which included an Egyptian engineer with Cairoï¿½s atomic energy commission, an Irishman and a Japanese national.
The Egyptian had been arrested and had confessed, while the two other suspects, including one named as Shiro Aizo, were being hunted, state prosecutor Abdel Meduid Mahmud told reporters.
He said the Egyptian, Mohamed Sayyed Saber, 35, was accused of supplying information to the Israeli secret service Mossad on ï¿½the different activitiesï¿½ of Egyptï¿½s atomic energy body.
According to the official Mena news agency, Saber helped Israeli intelligence hack into the Egyptian Atomic Agencyï¿½s computer network between February 2006 and February 2007, in exchange for $17,000 and a laptop.
He provided Israeli intelligence with classified documents pertaining to Egyptï¿½s Inshas nuclear research centre, north of Cairo.
Saber was reported to have paid frequent visits to the Israeli embassy in Cairo in May 1999 in the hope of getting a scholarship to study nuclear engineering at Tel Aviv University, Mena said.
The Egyptian was questioned at Cairo airport as he returned from Hong Kong, said the prosecutor, adding that the Irishman was not detained and had fled.
Saber, with his two alleged accomplices being tried in absentia, would face Egyptï¿½s high security court, the state prosecutor said.
Last September, Egypt announced it was resuming its civilian nuclear programme after a freeze of 20 years and said it planned to build at least one nuclear power plant by the year 2020.
Israel, which vehemently opposes Iranï¿½s nuclear programme despite Tehran saying it is for peaceful use, is believed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East with an estimated 200 warheads.
Neither the Irish nor Japanese embassies in Cairo could immediately confirm the reports. Israelï¿½s embassy spokesman Benny Sharoni said, ï¿½All that we know about this matter comes from the media. Up to the present, we have no official Egyptian information on this subject.ï¿½
The state security court is already holding one trial for alleged spying for Israel, with one Egyptian in the dock and other suspects again being tried in their absence.
Egyptian trials of suspected spies for Israel have often soured relations between Israel and Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab country to make peace with the Jewish state.
An Egyptian man with Canadian citizenship is on trial in Cairo in a separate case of alleged spying for Israel. He denies the charges and says a confession was forced out of him.
In 1996, Egypt sentenced Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab textile worker, to 15 years in jail for spying for Israel. Egyptian authorities said Azzam had passed messages in womenï¿½s underwear using invisible ink. ï¿½ Agencies
1. Middle East Looks to Nuclear to Conserve Oil, Gas
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The Middle East is looking to nuclear energy as the only way to power booming economies short of burning precious oil and gas reserves.
Nuclear energy is enjoying a renaissance the world over as its green credentials and promise of secure supplies help to overcome worries about its safety.
"Nuclear is a very attractive energy source," said Luis Echavarri, director general of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency. "Nuclear has demonstrated it is able to produce massive amounts of electricity without emitting CO2."
But many in the West are reluctant to see Middle Eastern oil powers, especially Iran, seize on the energy source because it can be used to make atom bombs.
"They argue that they need oil and gas for foreign currency and they don't want to squander it, but nuclear inevitably produces plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. You have to suspect that a number of countries want nuclear weapons," said Frank Barnaby of the Oxford Research Centre.
He also disputed nuclear power's green credentials.
"If you take into account the nuclear cycle, mining uranium etc and decommissioning the waste, then it's not carbon-free."
Locked in a dispute with the West over its nuclear ambitions, Iran is the most controversial of the Middle Eastern oil powers to say escalating domestic energy needs mean it could run out of hydrocarbons unless it can develop nuclear power.
"Our energy consumption is growing 7 percent every year. We need nuclear and renewables. Otherwise, we could become like Indonesia," said an Iranian oil official, referring to the only net importer of oil in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Others in the region also face annual growth in energy consumption of more than 6 percent, compared with less than 3 percent in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, analysts say.
Even if they have plenty of oil, their gas supplies are under strain. Ironically, high oil prices that have driven economic booms have helped to boost domestic gas demand for producing electricity.
"While the perception is that the Middle East is awash with gas, in reality, with the exception of Iran and Qatar, almost all the major countries in the Middle East have issues over future gas supply," said Rajnish Goswami, vice president of gas and power at Wood Mackenzie.
"Many countries in the Middle East are looking for alternatives to gas-fired power generation."
While nuclear energy is already established elsewhere, for most countries in the Middle East, the big problem is the length of time it will take to develop the necessary technology.
The notable exception is Iran, where work is well advanced at the southwest port city of Bushehr.
Other Middle East and North African oil and gas producers are decades away from nuclear capability.
"We need to develop nuclear power plants in the long term," said Algerian Energy and Mines Minister Chakib Khelil. "We are looking to build a nuclear plant by the next 25 years."
Before that, he said the country was developing alternatives like solar power, although most analysts say such alternative sources will be inadequate.
"It's very difficult to conceive that the Middle East countries can utilize in a massive way renewable energy," said Echavarri.
"They have fossil fuels at the moment ... In the short and medium term I don't see any possibility of escaping from that."
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