Sixteen nations signed a U.S.-initiated pact on Sunday to help meet soaring world energy demand over coming decades by developing nuclear technology less prone to diversion into atomic bomb-making.
Eleven nations joined the five nuclear fuel-producing powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Japan -- which formed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in a GNEP statement of principles at a ministerial ceremony in Vienna.
GNEP aims to launch proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors supplied by a global fuel bank meant to discourage nations from building sensitive fuel enrichment facilities on their own soil.
That technological threshold will probably take many years to reach, diplomats and analysts say.
It was given impetus by Iran's quest to enrich uranium despite U.N. resolutions ordering a halt over suspicions Tehran is trying to build bombs, not generate electricity as it says, and by North Korea's stealthy "break-out" to weapons capability.
"We may be late doing this. It certainly would have been better to do this 10 years ago than now," U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told reporters. "But I don't know that the proliferation genie is out of the bottle yet."
GNEP proponents say global demand for nuclear energy will almost double by 2030, propelled by high oil and gas prices and alarm about climate change linked to burning of fossil fuels.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief welcomed GNEP in part because it did not seem to undermine national sovereignty on energy, a concern that has hurt various proposals for a more secure multilateral system of atomic energy supply in the past.
"This has been one of the issues that has created a lot of anxiety. So this is very much an improvement and should encourage more countries to join (up)," said Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
The statement of principles said partner states "would not give up any rights". But concern still simmers in developing states, and even in some industrialised nations, that they might lose some sovereignty on atomic energy options.
South Africa is considering reviving a former uranium enrichment programme, while Argentina, Canada and Australia have suggested they might start their own as well. In a closed session after the ceremony, ministers agreed to set up working groups on creating reliable nuclear fuel services and infrastructure to support new technology, and decided to admit new members by consensus only, an official present said.
GNEP, which will be debated at a 144-nation IAEA conference starting on Monday, faces technological, financial and political cooperation hurdles before it brings tangible results.
Among major challenges will be developing affordable nuclear plants with fuel-reprocessing technology that would not yield separated plutonium, the commonest ingredient in atom bombs.
"GNEP is based on unproven technologies. It will take many years for the promise to be fulfilled," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
New GNEP partners ranged from Australia to Kazakhstan and Jordan. Twenty-one nations were present as observers including Canada, Egypt, Libya, Argentina, Brazil and major EU countries.
Louis Charbonneau and Francois Murphy with Mark Heinrich
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A split has emerged in the coalition of Western powers pressuring Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment program, as France backs U.S. calls for a new round of sanctions while Germany urges restraint.
The United States, Germany, France and Britain have led a diplomatic drive to punish Iran for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program. They succeeded in persuading reluctant Russia and China to back two U.N. sanctions resolutions.
Despite the sanctions, which have led to a sharp decrease in Western trade with Iran, Tehran refuses to abandon a program it says is meant for the peaceful generation of electricity.
Washington, which suspects Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, believes the time has come to expand the sanctions and has called a September 21 meeting of the six powers to discuss a third sanctions resolution to submit to the U.N. Security Council.
France said on Friday it was ready to take fresh action.
"We wish to have new sanctions adopted, as a priority in the U.N. Security Council," Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux told a regular news conference in Paris.
Germany, however, said discussion of fresh sanctions would not be necessary if Iran cooperated with the United Nations and cleared up doubts about its nuclear program. "Germany is ready, if necessary, to take the necessary steps against Iran," Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said.
But as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Germany was also open to "giving Iran a chance to recover the international community's lost confidence in its nuclear program," Jaeger said at a regular news conference.
"If Iran is ready to do this ... then I think we can spare ourselves future sanctions debates."
The IAEA, the U.N. watchdog, reached a deal with Tehran on August 21 meant to bring transparency to Iran's nuclear program.
Diplomats say Berlin wants to delay drafting any sanctions resolution until after IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei gives a progress report to the agency's board of governors in November.
The United States, France and Britain fear the transparency pact will allow Tehran time to build its capacity to enrich uranium, a process that can make fuel for nuclear bombs.
Western diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters, say they believe a new sanctions drive will be on hold pending a verdict from ElBaradei on the transparency pact.
Russia and China are in any case opposed to fresh sanctions.
One diplomat said that over the next few months it would become clear whether Iran was serious about clearing up questions about past, secret nuclear-related activities. If not, that would create a stronger basis for a third resolution.
"Whether you like it or not, it will be very difficult to get consensus ... to return to the Security Council as long as the (Iran-IAEA) work plan has a chance," a senior European diplomat in Vienna told Reuters.
Desagneaux said the IAEA deal was a step in the right direction but not enough as it did not address the suspension of Iran's enrichment work as the Security Council has demanded.
He even suggested the European Union could adopt its own sanctions beyond what the United Nations has approved. "We remind you that there are already measures taken outside that framework, in the framework of the European Union," he said.
Iran has said fresh sanctions could jeopardize the deal with the IAEA.
"If the Security Council tightens sanctions against Iran, then in the future our cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency will come to a halt," Iran's Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said during a visit to Beijing.
Expected international talks on North Korea's nuclear program to firm up a deadline for the country to disable its facilities so it can no longer produce weapons have been postponed, regional officials said Monday.
The talks had been expected to start around the middle of the week, but Japanese and South Korean officials said they would instead meet at a later date that has not yet been set. No reason for the delay was given.
The six-nation talks - including China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas - have dragged on for years and been beset by delays but have this year made some progress. The North shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor in July, and had been displaying a willingness to take further steps in exchange for political and economic concessions.
Last week, nuclear experts from the U.S., China and Russia visited the North's nuclear facilities to discuss technical details of disabling them and they reportedly reached an agreement with Pyongyang on how to proceed.
That had led the sides to expect talks involving all six nations to begin this week, in order to finalize the timeline for disablement that the six countries were unable to set at the last session in July. Disabling the facilities would mean they cannot be easily restarted to produce more plutonium that can be used in bombs.
On Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said in Washington that the talks were expected to begin in the middle of this week.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Monday that host China had informed Japan on Monday that the talks would be postponed. China gave no reason for the postponement and gave no new date for the start of talks, the official said on condition of anonymity due to policy.
Another South Korean Foreign Ministry official, also speaking on condition of anonymity due to policy, confirmed the talks would not begin Wednesday as had been previously expected.
A senior North Korean official denied a report that Pyongyang was giving nuclear expertise to Syria, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on Sunday. The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, last week reported that intelligence gathered over the past six months had led some U.S. officials to believe Syria was receiving help from North Korea on some sort of nuclear facility.
The intelligence, including satellite imagery, suggested the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons, the Post said.
"They often say things that are groundless," Yonhap quoted Kim Myong-gil, deputy chief of the North Korean mission to the United Nations, as saying.
Kim said he had nothing more to say and hung up the phone when asked to elaborate, Yonhap said.
North Korea is widely thought to sell conventional weapons to Syria though analysts say its armaments trade in general has been hit hard by tough sanctions since the reclusive state nearly a year ago tested its first nuclear device.
Pyongyang agreed earlier this year to start dismantling its nuclear facilities, and source of weapons-grade plutonium, in return for massive aid. More recently, the United States has held out the possibility of normalizing ties if the ostracized North completely scraps its nuclear weapons program.
The Syria reports have angered U.S. conservatives who believe North Korea cannot be trusted to keep its word and that talks on nuclear disarmament with regional powers, expected to resume next week, the six-party talks, are bound to fail.
On Friday, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea declined to confirm the Syria reports but said they underscored the need for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs.
The idea that lax accounting, a violation of security procedures, and/or plain negligence could cause a warhead to disappear from a nuclear superpower's arsenal without notice was one of the scariest scenarios in the immediate post-Cold War period. More than a decade later, it turns out these concerns weren't unfounded. Such a scenario more or less occurred at the end of August. The only surprise was where it happened--not in Russia or one of the former Soviet republics as expected, but in the United States.
On August 30, 2007, crews at Minot Air Base in North Dakota loaded a B-52 strategic bomber with air-launched cruise missiles, which were slated for decommissioning. When the aircraft landed 3 1/2 hours later at Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana, air force personnel realized that (according to estimates) six of these cruise missiles carried actual nuclear warheads. That such a mishap could occur was so hard to believe that it reportedly took almost ten hours for the chain of command to absorb the message and issue the orders that allowed the warheads to be moved to secure storage.
Most U.S. news reports of the incident emphasized that the public was never in danger. The air force continues to maintain that the weapons were in its custody at all times and that it would be impossible for them to "fall into the wrong hands." Others correctly pointed out that even if the plane crashed, the probability of a nuclear explosion was essentially zero--the warheads are designed to withstand such an accident. But that's not the point.
The point is that the nuclear warheads were allowed to leave Minot and that it was surprised airmen at Barksdale who discovered them, not an accounting system that's supposed to track the warheads' every movement (maybe even in real time). We simply don't know how long it would've taken to discover the warheads had they actually left the air force's custody and been diverted into the proverbial "wrong hands." Of course, it could be argued that the probability of this kind of diversion is very low, but anyone who knows anything about how the United States handles its nuclear weapons has said that the probability of what happened at Minot was also essentially zero.
Thus far, the reaction in the United States hasn't been encouraging. The story made a splash in the news, but the public has apparently bought the air force line that there was never a chance of an explosion and that the accident wasn't a big deal. The Pentagon is paying attention (if only because there are still a few people there who remember that nuclear weapons are dangerous), but air force leadership has already started arguing that releasing information about the accident would harm national security by "giv[ing] terrorists insights into how the United States guards and moves weapons." There might be some congressional action, but with the Iraq War taking center stage this fall, it's quite possible that the accident won't get the attention it deserves.
As early comments from knowledgeable people suggest, part of the problem is that the U.S. military no longer takes nuclear weapons seriously--and certainly not as seriously as they took nuclear weapons during the Cold War. I've long argued that in theory this is the right attitude: Indeed, in today's world, nuclear weapons contain no value, rendering them useless and dangerous. But this attitude hasn't translated into bold steps toward radically reducing the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. military, correctly judging that nuclear missions don't give them clout anymore, are trying to come up with different ways to give their nuclear systems some kind of "useful" conventional capability. With no political decision to cut the nuclear weapons forthcoming, they remain in place, sometimes dangerously side-by-side with conventional weapons, hidden from public scrutiny, and increasingly neglected. As the Minot accident demonstrated, this is an accident waiting to happen.
Maybe it's time for the United States to ask itself whether it can handle its nuclear weapons in a safe and secure manner.
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