1. Russia Anxious to Increase its Share in Uranium Enrichment Market
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Russia is set to quadruple the production of centrifuges at Kovrov Mechanical Factory, a top nuclear official said late last week. The nuclear agency is also shaping the state-run holding to control all nuclear production in the country, a move that President Vladimir Putin is likely to sign into a degree this week.
President Vladimir Putin may sign a decree to create the state-owned nuclear production holding, Atomenergoprom, following his annual address, Kommersant learnt from a source in the Russian nuclear industry.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov and Atomic Energy Agency head Sergey Kirienko visited Kovrov Mechanical Plant on Friday, discussing the creation of another giant holding that would design, produce and launch gas centrifuges.
The Russian Centrifuge project is run by state-owned Tekhsnabexport, a corporation which sells uranium and uranium enrichment services. Tekhsnabexport has recently bought the plant in Kovrov, one of Russiaï¿½s two centrifuge-producing facilities. The chief of the Russian nuclear energy agency announced Friday that production of centrifuges at the Kovrov plant is to quadruple in the next several years. The plant will also host several additional productions for the nuclear energy which will increase the factoryï¿½s profitability from 6 to 17 percent, according to Mr. Kirienko.
Deputy Head of Tekhsnabexport Valery Govorukhin says that the total world capacity of uranium enrichment is 38 million SWU, to go up to 50 million by 2020. Russiaï¿½s share in the market is less than 40 percent. Russian top officials do not hide plans to make Russia a leader in centrifuge production.
The United States and other world powers are willing to consider an Iranian proposal that would allow the country to keep some of its uranium enrichment program intact instead of dismantling it completely, foreign government officials said Tuesday.
On the eve of talks between top Iranian envoy Ali Larijani and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, the officials _ some of them diplomats, others based in their capitals _ said the discussions were key because for the first time they could try to sidestep the deadlock over enrichment by trying to agree on a new definition of the term.
The officials were familiar with the negotiations with Iran or specialized in non-proliferation issues.
Iran's defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand to freeze all activities linked to enrichment _ a possible pathway to nuclear arms _ has led to two sets of sanctions against the country. Although the punishments are limited and mild, they could be further sharpened if the Islamic republic refuses to compromise.
Iran argues the sanctions are illegal, pointing out that has the right to enrich to generate nuclear power under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That, say Iranian officials, is the only purpose of their program, rejecting suspicions that they want to ultimately enrich to weapons-grade uranium for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
The United States and others say past suspicious nuclear activities, including a program Iran kept secret for nearly two decades, set the country apart from others that have endorsed the treaty.
The last face-to-face talks between Solana and Larijani were more than six months ago, and the foundered over the same issue. Solana, representing the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, demanded that Iran dismantle not only fledging enrichment efforts but all linked aspects, including assembling centrifuges to enrich and facilities to house such plants. Tehran refused.
The approach on both sides ahead of Wednesday's talks, however, might make a compromise easier, because of a new willingness to examine possible ways of redefining an enrichment freeze, said the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.
1. More North Korea Nuclear Tests Likely if Talks Fail
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North Korea is likely to conduct more nuclear tests if six-nation diplomacy to disarm the communist state does not succeed, the commander of the U.S. military in South Korea told a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
"If the six-party talks do not produce a lasting settlement, the North Koreans will likely conduct a second and potentially additional nuclear tests when they see it as serving their purposes," said General B.B. Bell.
"Without a diplomatic settlement, Pyongyang's plutonium production capability and its reported HEU (highly enriched uranium) program places it on track to become a moderate nuclear power, potentially by the end of the decade," he said in a prepared statement for the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
North Korea missed an April 14 deadline to start closing its Soviet-era nuclear reactor and source of plutonium for bombs as required by a deal the North reached in February with South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in October, would "continue nuclear weapons research and development to perpetuate its strategy of intimidation" unless contained by the six-party talks, Bell predicted.
Bell leads the 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to support that country's 670,000ong military.
Under a formula that will be phased out in 2012, Bell has wartime control over both U.S. and South Korean forces who square off against North Korea's 1.2 million troops, most of which are stationed near the border that divides the peninsula.
Congressional hearings over the past several weeks have shown that the Bush administration's plan to move ahead with a new generation of nuclear warheads faces strong opposition from House and Senate members concerned that the effort lacks any strategic underpinning and could lead to a new nuclear arms race.
Experts inside and outside the government questioned moving forward with a new warhead as old ones are being refurbished and before developing bipartisan agreement on how many warheads would be needed at the end of what could be a 30-year process. Several, including former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), suggested linking production of a new warhead with U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a move the Bush administration has opposed.
Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who originated what has become the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, wants the number of warheads in the current U.S. stockpile declassified as "the first step for an honest dialogue on nuclear weapons." Including warheads that are deployed, inactive and in reserve, the total is assumed to be above 6,000.
"I suspect our potential adversaries know the number of U.S. nuclear warheads with much better precision than do the members of Congress," Hobson said at a recent congressional hearing. "I think I know the number," he added, "but I can't talk about it."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the nuclear weapons complex, said at a hearing Wednesday on the RRW program that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have "not been forthcoming" about their views on the issue.
Domenici, who supports the program, said he has sent letters to Rice, Gates and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, "urging them to take a more active role in supporting the RRW program." He told them, "You must answer critics who have argued that the RRW will lead to an arms race."
The program involves not only coordinating the design and costs of a new warhead for the Trident submarine-launched intercontinental missile, but also a multibillion-dollar plan -- called Complex 2030 by the Department of Energy -- to modernize the aging nuclear weapons facilities where warheads and bombs are designed, built and dismantled.
Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the nuclear complex, said at a hearing late last month that the program is proceeding "although the administration has not announced any effort to begin a policy process to reassess our nuclear weapons policy and the future nuclear stockpile required to support that policy." He also noted that the Pentagon's Defense Science Board reported last year that there has been virtually no high-level, long-term articulation of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls the nation's nuclear weapons, said at the hearing that he would like to challenge the proposed level of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by 2012 as possibly too high, "based on new [conventional weapons] capability, not new nuclear capability."
Former defense secretary William J. Perry, also appearing at the hearing, said current nuclear policies were developed for the Cold War and are "really not appropriate to the world we live in today." A new nuclear plan is "long overdue" and should be shared with the appropriate congressional committees, he said. It should include "not only issues about what numbers we need," Perry said, "but on what a future trajectory of those numbers in our forces should be and what kind of R&D is needed to support it."
At the same hearing, Nunn said he does not favor dismantling the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but he expressed concern about the international impact of the RRW program. Nunn, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and now chief executive of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the House panel, "If Congress gives a green light to this program in our current world environment . . . I believe that this will be misunderstood by our allies, exploited by our adversaries, [and] complicate our work to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons."
Nunn suggested that the RRW program would be better received "in the context of a ratified test ban treaty." He cautioned that "we can't afford to do it in this atmosphere without being misperceived, not only by Russia but by many others."
Nunn quoted a recent study prepared for the Defense Department that said: "The world sees us as increasing emphasis on nuclear weapons. The world sees us as shifting from nuclear weapons for deterrence and as weapons of last resort to nuclear weapons for war-fighting roles and first use. . . . And the world sees us as blurring the difference between nuclear and conventional weapons -- use whatever fits best."
Perry said there are two "valid" arguments being made in support of the RRW program -- that it would maintain the capabilities of U.S. weapons designers and provide a new warhead that "cannot be detonated by a terror group, even if they were able to get their hands on it."
However, he said, development of the RRW program "will substantially undermine our ability to lead the international community in the fight against proliferation, which we are already in danger of losing." Noting that present U.S. nuclear weapons will retain their capabilities for 50 to 100 years, he said the program could be deferred "for many years."
At Wednesday's Senate hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said bipartisan agreement on the program is necessary before Congress votes to spend funds to develop the new warheads.
The chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), said playing a major role in funding the nation's nuclear weapons poses important questions for him, and he is unsure how he will come out on the program. There are "serious questions to answer," he said. "The survival of this planet, I think, depends on our getting these things right."
Inside an enormous structure here, shielded by heavy security, a U.S. company is hard at work constructing tall, slender, uranium-enriching centrifuges designed to obtain uranium-235 for nuclear fuel -- the very technology that is provoking a standoff between the United States and Iran.
USEC Inc., which took over the government's uranium enrichment operations in 1993, is building the centrifuges at the Portsmouth Reservation, a Department of Energy property near Piketon. Within five years, if USEC can come up with the money, the building will hold 11,500 centrifuges and sell enriched uranium to nuclear plants around the world.
USEC's machines are technical marvels, much larger than those of Iran or other nations in the international centrifuge club, which includes Russia, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Pakistan and Brazil.
The most remarkable aspect of USEC's American Centrifuge project, though, is its resurrection from the dead.
The basic design originated more than two decades ago at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In the early 1980s, the DOE constructed an enormous centrifuge enrichment plant at the Portsmouth Reservation. But before it went into operation, the nuclear industry ran aground, and projected demand for nuclear fuel fell precipitously. In 1985, with 1,300 centrifuges already installed, the government canceled the program.
The building near Piketon became a mausoleum of secret technology. For more than 20 years, its centrifuges stood idle in silent rows.
"We had the feeling that someday those buildings would be like Stonehenge," said Houston G. Wood III, a professor at the University of Virginia who worked on the project. "People would come and wonder, 'What were they thinking?' "
The United States continued to produce enriched uranium at older plants that use another technology, called gaseous diffusion. These plants were privatized along with USEC in the late 1990s. Gaseous diffusion, however, is inefficient. The one plant that USEC still operates, at Paducah, Ky., consumes huge amounts of electricity, and USEC wants to replace it.
In 1999, the company elected to pursue centrifuges. It began searching for experts in the technology, many of them still working at Oak Ridge.
"Frankly, I don't think we would have resurrected this, had that not been the case," said Dean Waters, a leader of the centrifuge program before it was cancelled. He now works for USEC. Waters, like others, was about to retire when company officials called.
Waters helped retrieve old technical reports, computer programs and centrifuge-related equipment from a vault at Oak Ridge.
"It's like reliving your youth," he said. "You almost have to pinch yourself; how can I be doing this again?"
The mothballed facility at Piketon is coming back to life. USEC ripped out the 1980s-era centrifuges and hauled them off to the DOE's Nevada Test Site, where they were buried in a landfill for secret garbage.
A new generation of centrifuges, more advanced than their predecessors, is arriving. The first few loom like tall white ghosts in the dimly lit centrifuge hall.
Inside each one is a hollow cylinder called a rotor, more than 40 feet high and about two feet in diameter. The cylinder is made of tightly woven carbon fiber. It sits, perfectly balanced, on a needle and spins like a tall and slender top.
Its speed, like many other things about it, is secret. Outside experts, however, say the velocity of the cylinder's wall probably exceeds 1,000 mph, well above the speed of sound.
When uranium, in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas, is fed into the cylinder, centrifugal forces push it outward against the spinning wall. Heavier atoms of uranium-238, which make up more than 99 percent of uranium as it is mined from the Earth, push outward with greater force, separating themselves from the lighter uranium-235.
Within a few months, USEC plans to have as many as 240 centrifuges at the plant spinning at full speed and linked in a small "cascade." This trial is supposed to persuade investors to help finance a full-scale plant, which USEC estimates will cost $2.3 billion.
There is plenty of demand at the moment for enriched uranium, and prices have been rising. But USEC faces direct competition from a German-British-Dutch consortium called Urenco. Urenco operates centrifuge enrichment plants in Europe that are widely considered the most efficient in the world, and it is building a plant near the town of Eunice, in southeastern New Mexico.
Some observers, such as Julian Steyn, president of the consulting company Energy Resources International, think USEC's unproven centrifuges will have difficulty competing with Urenco's.
USEC officials, however, emphasize the size and power of their machines, which are designed to enrich uranium four times as fast as Urenco's most advanced centrifuges. The American Centrifuge design is like a Mercedes, said one USEC official, compared with the Volkswagen of its competitor's "little, short machines."
USEC officials navigate a delicate path between promotion and secrecy. Reporters touring the facility are prohibited from taking pictures, carrying cellphones, or even taking notes with pen and paper. Any foreigner who wishes to visit the facility has to pass a DOE security review, which takes several months.
The tight security is traceable to the colorful history of centrifuge technology and its status as a poster child for nuclear proliferation.
It was invented, in its modern form, in a Soviet camp for captured German and Austrian scientists immediately after World War II. The Soviets released the leading engineer of the team, Austrian Gernot Zippe, in 1956, and Zippe shared his secrets first with U.S. officials, then with the Europeans who founded Urenco.
"I saw that the West was far behind what we did in Russia, and I decided that it would be wrong to leave this to the Russians," Zippe said in 1992.
He settled near Munich, but the technology kept traveling. A Pakistani employee at one of Urenco's contractors, Abdul Qadeer Khan, carried centrifuge designs back to his homeland in the 1970s and rose to fame as the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. According to Western investigators, Pakistan then provided technology to other nuclear aspirants, including Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Waters, who took on the job of improving the original Zippe centrifuge when he started working at Oak Ridge in the 1960s, said USEC's technology is less likely to be disseminated: "Not many people would even attempt to tackle the kind of machine that we're building."
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