Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months, potentially enabling the Islamic regime to develop a nuclear bomb by 2009, much sooner than previously though, a media report said on Tuesday.
Tehran has added 1,000 centrifuges which are used to separate radioactive particles from the raw material, which means the country could have enough material for a nuclear bomb by 2009, ABC Television network reported quoting sources "familiar with the dramatic upgrade."
The sources said the unexpected expansion is taking place at Iran's nuclear enrichment plant outside the city of Natanz, in a hardened facility 70 feet underground.
A spokesperson for the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declined to comment on the report citing the "extreme sensitivity" of the situation with Iran.
Tehran has already declared that its above-ground operations at Natanz have some 320 centrifuges.
The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges, which are not yet operational, means Iran is expanding its enrichment programme at a pace much faster than US intelligence experts had predicted, ABC said.
"If they continue at this pace, and they get the centrifuges to work and actually enrich uranium on a distinct basis, then you're looking at them having, potentially having enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2009," David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security told the network.
Previous predictions by US intelligence had cited 2015 as the earliest date Iran could develop a nuclear weapon.
1. U.S., N. Korea Likely to Meet This Weekend on HEU Program: Sources
Yonhap News Agency
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The top nuclear negotiators of the United States and North Korea are likely to meet in Beijing over the weekend to discuss the communist nation's long-suspected uranium enrichment program, sources close to the negotiations said Tuesday.
The meeting is expected to follow the release of North Korea's US$25 million frozen at a Macau bank, a source said on condition of anonymity.
The latest round of nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea held in Beijing last month ended without progress, as the communist nation refused to discuss the nuclear issue until the funds at the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA) were released.
The sources said Pyongyang and Washington have agreed to resolve the BDA issue before the end of this month and start taking "physical measures" to implement a February agreement in which the North promised to shut down and seal its key nuclear-related facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days, or before April 14.
"Even if the six-party talks are resumed after the full resolution of the BDA issue, there are expected to be many obstacles unless the United States and North Korea are able to discuss the key issues in advance," a source said, asking not to be identified.
One of the most sticky issues in the talks that involve South and North Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia is the allegation North Korea has a uranium enrichment program in addition to its plutonium-based program.
The ongoing nuclear crisis erupted in late 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of running a clandestine nuclear weapons program based on highly-enriched uranium (HEU), an accusation still denied by Pyongyang.
Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, told Yonhap News Agency during last month's six-nation talks that his country would "very soon" produce evidence of the North's suspected weapons program at a separate forum.
"I did raise again that we need to run the program to ground, that is, we need to understand all aspects of that, and that understanding all aspects of the HEU program is important before the DPRK makes its complete declaration of nuclear programs," Hill said following his meeting with Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Beijing.
The DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
In the Feb. 13 agreement struck in Beijing, North Korea has to submit a complete list of all its nuclear programs to the U.N. nuclear watchdog and disable its Yongbyon facilities.
No deadline has yet been set for the second stage of the disarmament plan, but Hill, speaking to reporters in Beijing last month, said he hoped to arrange a time schedule "that will get us through disablement in this calendar year in 2007."
No date has also been set for the resumption of the nuclear negotiations, but Seoul officials believe it will be timed around April 14, when North Korea is required to complete its first-phase denuclearization measures under the Feb. 13 agreement.
1. Jordan Announces Plans to Build Nuclear Power Plant by 2015
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Jordan intends to build its first nuclear power plant by 2015, the Jordanian energy minister said yesterday, and his staff is now working on a timetable for implementing the project. Israel's eastern neighbor will use nuclear energy for various purposes such as electricity and desalination.
Energy Minister Khaled Sharida said Jordan would also be initiating power projects from solar and wind energy.
Sharida has a doctorate in nuclear physics from a Dutch university. The Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported yesterday that Jordanian universities would begin teaching this field to prepare the country to operate nuclear facilities. Sharida said the plan was the result of "Arab trends accepted by the West."
This month the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, will come to Jordan to discuss cooperation between the agency and the kingdom.
Jordan is a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, according to which the IAEA monitors nuclear projects for peaceful purposes in countries seeking to establish a nuclear reactor.
Jordanian King Abdullah's brother Hamzah has reportedly been made head of the country's energy committee, which will map out the kingdom's needs for the coming years. Jordan's deserts reportedly contain 2 percent of the world's uranium reserves.
A few months ago, Egypt announced its intention to renew a nuclear project halted about two decades ago.
There are reports of nuclear plans in other countries including Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.
1. U.S. Official in Turkey for Missile Defense Program
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A key American official continued his European tour in Turkey yesterday, with the United States wanting to go-ahead with building a controversial missile defense system in Europe despite sharp criticism from Russia and some NATO allies.
Deputy Director for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency Brig. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly held key talks with Turkish diplomatic and military officials yesterday after his visit to Hungary on March 29.
Turkish and U.S. diplomatic sources confirmed to The New Anatolian yesterday that during the talks the two sides expressed their views on the missile defense system. U.S. diplomats said that Turkey is one of the most important U.S. allies in the region, adding that the two sides are holding general discussions about the missile system. Details of Turkey's position on the defense missile system and what they may do are on the agenda of following talks.
Turkish diplomatic sources told The New Anatolian that Turkey and the U.S. are holding meetings on a missile defense system at a technical level. The U.S. is informing Turkey, one of its most important allies about its program.
The U.S. general will also meet officials in Poland as well as Greece and Spain.
The U.S. is proceeding with its plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe to counter possible incoming rockets from Iran and North Korea, despite strong objections by Russia. The Washington administration is planning to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and build a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic and make them operational in 5 years. As part of its missile defense program, the U.S. is also considering building another radar tracking station in the Caucasus. The possible locations named for this station are Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to NATO and American sources, the planned missile shield, in its earlier phase will protect most of Europe, but Southeast Europe will not be under protection. Turkey, Greece, large parts of Romania and Bulgaria will be out of the sphere of protection.
Turkish diplomatic sources explained that this is not a NATO project, saying, "The U.S. is aiming for protection against missile attacks from Iran and North Korea and they are trying to take measures on this subject."
The Turkish government has so far not been keen on the idea of incorporating the U.S. missile defense program within NATO. Turkey is worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and does not underestimate the threat posed by the nuclear ambitions of Iran, which claims it will only use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III said last week that he has briefed the NATO-Russia Council and has opened discussions with German, French and Ukrainian officials in their respective European capitals. Talks with the Czech Republic and Poland are ongoing, and visits to Spain, Turkey, Greece and Hungary to discuss missile defense issues will take place in coming weeks, he said.
During these discussions, General Obering said he has been asked several recurring questions.
"I get asked, 'Well, first of all, doesn't this upset the balance that we've achieved in the past between deterrence? And what about arms control? Doesn't this contradict arms control measures?'" he said.
General Obering said he reminds European officials that missile defense is part of a spectrum.
"It's part of an entire toolbox that we try to use to address the ballistic missile threat," he said. "At one end of that spectrum you have deterrence, and we believe that that is still a very viable concept.
Moscow strongly opposes such plans and it has threatened to target these areas with its own missile systems. "The Russians have expressed concern about our proposal, which has surprised us," O'Reilly said last week during his visit to Hungary. "The location in Poland and the Czech Republic is not good for defense of the US from a Russian missile arsenal. This is not set up to counter Russian missiles."
However even some European Union officials are worried, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who urged the US to coordinate its missile defense program with NATO.
An administration proposal to build a new generation of more reliable nuclear warheads to replace the stockpile met with skepticism last week from key lawmakers who will decide how much money to give the program.
Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over nuclear weapons programs, said he was "troubled by the giddiness" at the Energy Department over development of the new warhead program.
The panel's ranking Republican, Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, said he was worried the warhead development was aimed not so much to meet the military's requirements but "to prove that we can still design nuclear weapons."
Earlier this month, the department announced that engineers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would work on designing the new warheads and develop cost estimates.
Separately, three experts on nuclear nonproliferation, including a former defense secretary and former Sen. Sam Nunn, said that building a new warhead, even if only a replacement, sends the wrong message to the world and could make all the more difficult the resolution of the nuclear problems with Iran and North Korea.
"We will pay a very high price in terms of our overall national security" because other nations will view the new U.S. warhead as a reason to proceed with nuclear weapons development, Nunn, co-chairman of the privately funded Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the lawmakers.
The Energy Department has asked for $89 million for next fiscal year to look into the design and develop cost estimates for producing the warhead, which supporters say is needed to assure future safety, reliability and security of the nuclear weapons stockpile without actual ground testing.
Thomas D'Agostino, head of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, told the subcommittee that the current aging warheads in years to come "may pose an unacceptable risk" as to their long-term reliability without testing. D'Agostino declined to speculate how much the program might cost, saying that's what he hopes to learn over the next year.
D'Agostino reiterated that the new warhead would be more easily maintained, provide additional assurances of security and reliability and allow for a reduction in the number of warheads that will have to be kept in reserve.
The lawmakers said they were not convinced.
Visclosky said only a few years ago department officials said that its so-called "stockpile stewardship" and warhead life-extension programs could maintain and assure the reliability of the stockpile well into the next century.
Also, Hobson said, a recent conclusion by weapons experts that the plutonium pits used in warheads can be counted on to remain in good condition much longer than had been expected raises questions about the need of a new warhead design.
William Perry, a former defense secretary, said action on a new warhead could be deferred for many years without an adverse impact on the country's nuclear stockpile and would "put us in a stronger position to lead the international community in the battle against nuclear proliferation."
Richard Garwin, a nuclear physicist who was involved in developing the hydrogen bomb, questioned why a new warhead is needed to assure reliability or security.
The weapons now in the stockpile have been tested in actual detonations, Garwin said, and "with the passage of time and improvements in computing tools, ... confidence in the reliability of the existing weapons will increase rather than diminish.
If the entire arsenal is replaced by warheads that never have been tested in a detonation, the physicist said, there eventually may be increased pressure to resume explosive testing to make sure they work.
It happened in France, after scientists there bragged of adding a new nuclear weapon based on calculations and experiments but no nuclear test. A new president was elected, and France launched a series of six nuclear tests before signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
If a future U.S. president, defense secretary or Congress demanded test explosions for the new warhead, Garwin told the committee, "this would be nothing short of disastrous and would not only call forth nuclear explosion tests by some of our rivals such as China and Russia but would largely destroy the era of restraint among those countries choosing to remain without nuclear weapons."
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