1. UN Nuclear Inspectors End 'Fruitful' Visit to N Korea
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United Nations inspectors confirmed on Saturday after a "fruitful" visit to North Korea that the country intended to shut down its main nuclear reactor, although no time frame had yet been set.
We have now reached an understanding on how we are going to monitor the sealing and shutting down of the Yongbyon nuclear facility," the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team, Olli Heinonen, told reporters.
However, Heinonen said it was still too early to say when the Yongbyon reactor, which is at the core of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, would be sealed.
He said the IAEA's board of governors and the six nations involved in long-running efforts to end the North's nuclear programme would make the arrangements on closing Yongbyon.
Heinonen was speaking to reporters at Beijing airport after he and the three other members of the IAEA inspection team flew out of Pyongyang, ending a five-day visit to North Korea.
They were the first IAEA inspectors to visit North Korea since the UN nuclear watchdog was kicked out of the country in late 2002.
Their expulsion was at the start of chain of events that led to the regime testing an atomic weapon for the first time last year, which triggered widespread international condemnation and UN sanctions on North Korea.
Heinonen gave a positive assessment of his team's trip, which included a visit to Yongbyon, 95 kilometres (60 miles) north of Pyongyang.
"We had fruitful discussions and visits to the Yongbyon site," he said.
Heinonen had already been quoted as saying on Friday from Pyongyang that a "mutual understanding" had been reached to close the Yongbyon reactor.
The closure of Yongbyon is the first step in a six-nation deal reached in February that would see North Korea eventually eradicate its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for aid and wide-ranging diplomatic concessions.
The other nations involved are China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Christopher Hill, the US chief envoy to the six-party process, said last week after visiting Pyongyang that he expected the North to shut down Yongbyon by mid-July.
Following a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington, South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon said Thursday that the next round of six-party talks would be held soon after the reactor was closed.
China, which is the host of the six-party talks and one of North Korea's closest allies, is also expected to push forward the disarmament process when Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visits Pyongyang next week.
A foreign ministry spokesman said when the July 2-4 trip was announced that Yang would discuss the disarmament process with his hosts.
North Korea said Yongbyon was built to generate electricity but it is reportedly not connected to any power lines.
Instead, experts believe, it has produced enough plutonium over the past 20 years for possibly up to a dozen nuclear weapons.
Under the February deal, the North must eventually abandon the reactor for good and come clean on all of its nuclear programmes, including an enriched uranium-based scheme which it has denied operating.
In return, Pyongyang would eventually receive energy aid equivalent to one million tons of heavy fuel oil.
For closing Yongbyon and allowing the IAEA inspectors back in, North Korea will receive an initial delivery of 50,000 tons of fuel oil.
South Korea has said it will pay for the first batch of oil.
North and South Korean officials were Saturday meeting to discuss the energy aid.
Iran on Sunday again ruled out a freeze to its uranium enrichment program, despite the threat of tougher UN sanctions over its defiance.
"Suspending enrichment is not on the agenda," foreign ministry spokesman Mohamamd Ali Hosseini told reporters.
He was responding to media reports about a "time-out" proposed to Iran by world powers, which would halt a third set of UN sanctions against Tehran if it stopped expanding its uranium enrichment work, in a bid to restart talks.
"Some media and European officials have talked about a plan which includes suspending our nuclear activities. This is nothing new, it was brought up by the (International Atomic Energy) Agency chief," he said.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei had earlier proposed a plan which would lift sanctions against Iran if it froze all its enrichment activities.
Hosseini said that different aspects of the "time out" plan were discussed in meetings between Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
"No decisions have been made no far. If it is necessary, the plan will be further discussed," he said.
The United States and Russia are expected to sign an agreement soon to allow enhanced civilian nuclear cooperation but Moscow's ties with Iran continue to loom as a potential complication.
US officials told Reuters the agreement is nearly done and one official said it could be initialled soon, perhaps before US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Bush family retreat at Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1 and 2.
At a time when US-Russian relations have grown more complex and testy, the meeting is designed to let the two leaders "step back, consider how to avoid rhetorical escalation and concentrate on a common agenda," US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried recently told a Senate committee.
The 123 agreement, so called because it falls under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, is critical to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, which the United States and Russia have discussed for more than a year as a way to expand peaceful nuclear energy development and mitigate proliferation risks.
"This is a serious initiative. It is moving ahead. We need a 123 agreement to keep moving," Fried told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But happily this is an area where we are making steady progress and hope to continue to do so."
Such an agreement marks a significant change in US policy. Under the Clinton administration, most nuclear cooperation with Russia was prohibited because of Moscow's pivotal role in building Iran's $US800 million ($NZ1.067 billion) nuclear power plant at Bushehr.
But Bush administration officials, arguing Russia has increasingly co-operated on Iran and other non-proliferation issues, reversed that.
Iran has defied repeated demands by the UN Security Council to halt uranium enrichment, which can be used in both weapons and energy production, at a facility called Natanz.
The United States and other major powers say Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons but Tehran insists it only wants to produce electricity.
While Moscow remains formally committed to the Bushehr project, which is supposed to be for electricity generation, it has delayed providing fuel for the facility and has joined the United States and other major powers in voting for two sets of UN sanctions against Iran.
At the same time, Russia -- along with China -- has often defended Iran and put up a vigorous struggle each time to weaken proposed sanctions.
Once the US-Russia 123 agreement is initialled and then signed, Bush would send it to Congress, which has 90 days to act. If Congress does nothing, the agreement goes into effect. If lawmakers want to block it, they must pass a resolution of disapproval.
Even if Congress lets the 123 agreement take effect, the accord could be stymied by legislation approved earlier this week by the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee.
The bill, which still must be voted on by the full House and Senate, is intended to force Bush to sanction oil and gas companies doing business with Iran.
But it also would bar bilateral cooperation agreements "with Russia or with any other countries assisting Iran's nuclear or missile or advanced conventional weapons programmes."
The American Council on Global Nuclear Competitiveness, which represents nuclear and energy experts, has backed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia.
The council says the accord would help the United States gain access to Russia's fast-spectrum reactor technology while providing Russia with the opportunity to learn from America's extensive fast reactor experience.
But the group warned that any deal should not undermine the re-emerging US uranium industry with increased Russian imports.
1. IBM Launches Nuclear Expertise Center in France
International Business Times
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IBM will open in France its first nuclear consultancy center in July, at a time when utilities are looking to build new reactors and stretch the old ones' lifetime, an executive said on Monday.
International Business Machines Corp. is banking on a growth of the nuclear industry as the carbon dioxide-free energy source is touted as a tool to combat global warming and increase power output to meet surging demand.
Guido Bartels, IBM's global energy and utilities industry manager told Reuters that in the 30 countries with nuclear generation there was a need for sophisticated risk modeling and information tools driven by nuclear power plant license extensions and construction of new plants.
But the 25ong nuclear experts' centre, he added, would be mainly focused on Europe. "There is a lot going on here," he said.
The full opening of EU power markets on July 1 to households was an opportunity for increased competition and increased pressure to provide cost-effective and reliable power, he added.
The company did not disclose the investment cost for the centre.
IBM already provides utilities services for improved design, construction, safety and operation of nuclear power plants to utilities such as French power giant EDF, U.S. publicly-owned Tennessee Valley Authority and the utility holding company DTE Energy.
The center, based in southern France, will be near Cadarache, the site of the International Thermonuclear Experimental reactor (ITER) fusion project, and will draw on French expertise.
With the US pressing it to join Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), New Delhi has sought "clarifications" on certain aspects of the multi-nation programme aimed at checking proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems worldwide.
India has a number of apprehensions with regard to operational aspects of US-led PSI that was launched in 2003 with an aim of creating a proactive approach to preventing proliferation to or from nation states and non-state actors.
"We are still examining some elements of it (PSI)," a senior official said.
The issue was discussed about a fortnight back when senior officials of India and the US met. The Indian side was led by K C Singh, Additional Secretary in External Affairs Ministry, while the American delegation was headed by John C Rood, Acting Under Secretary for Non-Proliferation.
"We have sought certain clarifications (from the US)," the official said.
The US has been pressing India to join the PSI, viewing the country to be important for the programme's future, particularly expansion and functionality.
India, however, has apprehensions about PSI's application as well as its legal ramifications.
New Delhi has reservations about "mechanics" of maritime interdictions of vessels suspected to be carrying materials for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
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