1. NKorea, US showing flexibility in nuclear dispute: SKorea
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Both the United States and North Korea are showing flexibility in trying to settle a dispute which threatens a nuclear disarmament agreement, South Korea's foreign minister said Tuesday.
The comments by Yu Myung-Hwan raised hopes that a mission to Pyongyang last week by chief US negotiator Christopher Hill has been fruitful.
"The US side, although nothing has changed in terms of the substance (of its demand), is showing utmost flexibility," Yu told parliamentarians.
Asked whether the North was also exercising flexibility, Yu said, "Yes."
Hill has reported "very substantive" talks but has given no details.
The six-nation disarmament deal is in danger of collapsing because of a dispute over verification of the North's declared nuclear programme.
The North is bridling at a US-inspired verification plan which reportedly calls for the secretive communist state to give access to undeclared suspected nuclear facilities and to let inspectors take samples of material.
Yu denied a report in a pro-Pyongyang newspaper that the North made a new proposal to Hill and had given the US an ultimatum to accept it. "All that Mr Hill has discussed with the North was the verification issue," he said.
The minister said negotiations currently involve inspections of the plutonium programme which the North declared in June, and not of a suspected secret highly enriched uranium (HEU) programme.
"Basically speaking, verification should cover all nuclear facilities," he said. "However, negotiations at this stage are aimed to discuss ways to verify the nuclear declaration made by the North."
Yu said the HEU issue would also be dealt with at some future stage.
The North denies US claims that it has tried to develop a HEU programme in addition to its declared plutonium operation. It merely acknowledged US concerns about HEU in an addendum to the main declaration.
A South Korean government source quoted by Yonhap news agency said the North, during Hill's visit, had demanded extra aid for any inspections of military facilities.
The communist state asserts that some non-nuclear military equipment would have to be shifted from military bases before any inspection, Yonhap said.
Hill met a senior military officer during his visit.
In 1999, North Korea demanded and obtained large-scale food aid from the US in return for opening a suspected underground nuclear base at Kumchang-ri for inspection. Nothing was found.
Pyongyang accepted the aid-for-disarmament deal in February 2007, just four months after staging a nuclear weapons test.
It shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex in July last year and began disabling it in November. And in June it handed over a declaration of nuclear activities to China.
But now the North is angry that the US failed to respond by removing it from a terrorism blacklist, as required under the accord. It says it will soon begin work to restart a plutonium reprocessing plant.
Before delisting occurs, the US demands that the North agree on inspection procedures to ensure it is telling the truth in its declaration.
The North says verification is not part of this stage of the agreement, and accuses Washington of seeking Iraq-style "house searches" for atomic material.
The United States believes the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement will be signed but is not certain when it will happen.
Asked whether there was a hiccup, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said on Monday, ï¿½I think itï¿½s just administrative matters.... Iï¿½m not aware of any concerns that the Indian government may have, but Iï¿½d refer you to them with regard to any concerns that they might have.ï¿½
President Bush is to sign the enabling legislation into law on Wednesday. India has held off signing the 123 Agreement till Bush puts his signature to the bill. Wood said it is important to focus on what has been accomplished. ï¿½Itï¿½s a great deal for both India and the United States.ï¿½
When asked whether the agreement would be signed before the next administration, Wood said, ï¿½You know, Iï¿½ve learned never to put timeframes on things like this.ï¿½
1. UPDATE 1-Areva signs nuclear deals with China's CGNPC
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Areva (CEPFi.PA: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) said on Tuesday it has signed two deals with China Guandong Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC) to reinforce its partnership with China.
CGNPC and Areva will create a joint venture held 55 percent by Chinese interests and 45 percent by Areva for the engineering and procurement of nuclear power plants, the French builder of nuclear reactors said in a statement.
Areva has already sold two European Pressurized Reactors (EPR) to China.
The JV will focus on CGNPC projects in China at first before looking at projects abroad.
CGNPC and Chinese sovereign wealth funds will also take a 49 percent stake in Uramin, a mining company currently wholly-owned by Areva.
Areva will remain operator of Uramin's current and future projects but CGNPC is now guaranteed access to more than half of the miner's total production, while Areva benefits from additional means of financing its activities, Areva said.
1. Venezuela, France eye nuclear energy cooperation
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France is willing to help Venezuela develop a civilian nuclear power program, the foreign ministers of both countries said Thursday.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also said that France would like to use Venezuela ï¿½ a staunch critic of the United States ï¿½ as a go-between with Iran in discussions about the Middle Eastern nation's disputed nuclear program, but that Iranian officials have so far proved unreceptive to the approach.
He said his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, agreed on the need to check the Iranian nuclear program, as officials there have not answered "the very pertinent questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency," the U.N.'s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog.
Venezuela has pursued close relations with Iran and has defended the country against allegations that it is secretly seeking nuclear weapons. Iran also denies the charges, insisting its nuclear program is purely civilian.
France ï¿½ which along with the United States is among the toughest opponents of the Iranian nuclear program ï¿½ would like to discuss the matter through Venezuela, but the "Iranians don't respond. It's too bad," Kouchner said.
Venezuela, a major petroleum producer, is looking to secure its future energy supply by investing in alternative energy sources and nuclear power, Maduro told a news conference in Paris marking the start of two days of high-level talks between the two countries. Maduro added that humanity's future depends, in part, on going nuclear.
Kouchner said France is "ready to work with our Venezuelan friends" to develop a civilian nuclear power program. He emphasized that such a program would have to have exclusively peaceful goals.
The two nations were to sign around 10 accords on cooperation in the telecommunications, culture, education, energy and other sectors during the during the talks. French energy companies, including Paris-based oil giant Total, have extensive investments in Venezuela's crude-rich Orinoco River basin.
Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez last week said he had accepted an offer from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for assistance in building a nuclear reactor. The move, which came during Chavez's visit to Moscow last Sunday, is likely to raise U.S. concerns over increasingly close cooperation between Caracas and Moscow.
France has recently signed accords for cooperation on civilian nuclear technology with a host of nations including India and such Muslim nations as Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Two South American countries, Brazil and Argentina, currently have nuclear power plants.
A Japanese research team is developing a technology that would make it more difficult for countries that operate nuclear power plants to produce nuclear weapons with extracted plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.
If this technology can be practically used to safeguard against the misuse of nuclear energy, Japan may help bolster nuclear nonproliferation by supplementing the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Last month, a symposium of atomic scientists and other experts discussed research findings and action steps at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
"Although many people think plutonium is bad, a new time is coming where we may not have to worry that plutonium will be converted to produce nuclear weapons," said Masaki Saito, professor of the Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors at the university. Spent nuclear fuel contains 1 percent plutonium, 1 percent uranium-235, 95 percent uranium-238 and 3 percent fission products. Of the plutonium, 60 percent of plutonium-239 is the primary fissile isotope used to produce nuclear weapons and less than 2 percent of plutonium-238 is a non-fissile, alpha-emitting isotope with a half-life ï¿½the time needed for an element to decay by half ï¿½ of 88 years.
A research team led by Saito has found plutonium-238ï¿½s ratio can be increased to enhance the proliferation resistance of plutonium by transmitting minor actinides, like neptunium-237 or americium-241, to uranium fuel for nuclear power reactors. MAs are actinide elements in spent nuclear fuel other than uranium and plutonium and are classified as high-level radioactive waste.
The team developing the technology, called protected plutonium production, has conducted irradiation experiments of MAs at the Idaho National Laboratory in the United States and has confirmed that the amount of plutonium-238 produced can be controlled by changing neptunium-237ï¿½s density.
If plutonium-238ï¿½s ratio can be increased from less than 2 percent to several percentage points, in 1 percent of plutonium of spent nuclear fuel, manufacturing nuclear weapons becomes technologically difficult due to high decay heat and high spontaneous fission neutron sources. But the plutonium-238 does produce nuclear energy, the same as plutonium-239, when used in a reactor.
"The experimental results were what we expected. Next, we have to figure out how to apply this technology for actual use," Saito said.
The international community, especially the five nuclear weapons states, has supported nuclear nonproliferation through the International Atomic Energy Agencyï¿½s safeguard system under the NPT regime without prohibiting the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
However, the NPT's loophole was exposed when India, which refused to sign the NPT, conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, with deuterium oxide from the United States and a research reactor from Canada that were for peaceful use, not for nuclear weapons.
Currently, 30 countries are operating a total of 439 nuclear reactors and 13 more countries plan to build reactors. When countries participating in the Nuclear Suppliers Group ï¿½ a nuclear export control regime ï¿½ added a small amount of MAs before exporting uranium fuel, the combination of extrinsic measures, such as IAEAï¿½s safeguard system, and intrinsic measures, such as the technical difficulty or unattractiveness of the nuclear material, made nuclear proliferation less likely.
Japan, the world's third country in nuclear power generation after the United States and France, has 44 tons of plutonium and now, under the international spotlight, is expected to start full-scale operation of the Rokkasho reprocessing facilities next month. These facilities will be able to reprocess about 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel per year, roughly 80 percent of the annual amount generated by 55 power plants, and add approximately eight tons of plutonium per year. The purpose is to boost the plutonium-related technology. A sense of crisis over energy security is behind the move.
The extracted plutonium is currently stored under tight control to protect against terrorist attacks or other threats. If newly produced plutonium is replaced with the high-ratio plutonium-238, unattractive as material for nuclear weapons, the number of IAEA inspections could be decreased and costs reduced.
"It is important to see this as one option for nuclear nonproliferation measures," said Prof. Yusuke Kuno of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Science and Technology Center of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Management at the University of Tokyo. "When uranium is exhausted fifty years later, Asian countries will ask Japan to supply plutonium. If that plutonium has applied this technology, it will be easier to give to them."
The IAEA, which not only conducts nuclear inspections under the NPT but also supports any developing technologies regarding nuclear nonproliferation, is paying attention.
"Plutonium must not be allowed to be diverted for non-peaceful purposes. Protected plutonium production is one way to ensure that, so we are supporting this technology," said Chaitanyamoy Ganguly, section head of the IAEAï¿½s Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section.
France, which generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear energy, is assessing whether the technology can be applied to future reactors, starting in 2012.
Officials of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration have also shown interest in this project and plan to visit Japan in mid-October to study it in detail.
This technology also reduces high-level radioactive waste as it burns MAs, most of which have a long half-life; the half-life of neptunium-237 is 2.1 million years, and those for americium-241 and americium-243 are 432 and 7,400 years, respectively.
To be safe, high-level radioactive waste needs to be buried underground and managed for thousands of years. The international community agrees this is the best disposal method, but no country has moved into action so far. This new technology may help relieve a major headache for countries with nuclear energy.
However, some issues need to be resolved before practical use of this technology is possible. Handling of plutonium-238 is difficult due to its high decay heat, which is 300 times that of plutonium-239; extracting MAs and adding it to the uranium fuel would be costly.
"It would become meaningless if Iran or North Korea got uranium fuel by another route,ï¿½ Kuno pointed out. ï¿½Also, it might be hard for high-cost fuel to become the world standard."
Kuno also expressed concern about ï¿½pollutingï¿½ plutonium, which he called ï¿½the treasure of mankind,ï¿½ by altering its structure.
Japan's energy self-sufficiency is only 4 percent with the resource-poor country buying almost 100 percent of its crude oil overseas. "Uranium reserves will be in a tough situation within this century. When that happens, we will have no other choice but to utilize plutonium as an energy resource," Saito said.
However, Japan faces a predicament with its current plan for plutonium utilization. Despite numerous safety concerns, the country is expected to start burning mixed plutonium-uranium oxide ï¿½ or MOX ï¿½ fuel, imported from Britain or France, in 16 to 18 commercial reactors by 2010. This has not yet happened because of a scandal in 1999 where British Nuclear Fuels fabricated quality assurance data for MOX fuel exported to Japan, spreading distrust of nuclear energy among Japanese citizens.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., which was to have been involved in developing the MOX fuel, also lost the confidence of the Japanese public when in 2002 it was discovered to have covered up a series of technical problems. This delivered a final blow to the use of MOX in Japan.
Initially, the key to plutonium utilization was the fast-breeder reactor, which enormously enhances the efficiency of uranium utilization, increasing the efficiency of uranium use by 60 percent.
However, the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany abandoned the plan of developing FBRs in the 1990s because of technical difficulties. Japan's fast-breeder Monju reactor in Fukui prefecture was also suspended in 1995 after a natrium leakage accident. The operation was set to resume this month but was instead postponed to February, because the natrium leakage detector was producing improper operating signals throughout the year. Present plans under the Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy are to strive for commercial use of FBRs starting from 2050.
Saito hopes to apply the new technology to existing reactors within ten years. He sees that applying it toward FBRs would likely happen once they are fitted for actual use.
"I think that unless we resolve problems related to safety, treatment of high-level radioactive waste, energy sustainability and nuclear nonproliferation at the same time, the future of nuclear power will be jeopardized," he said.
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