1. U.N. Chief Seeks Answers on Iranian Nuclear Issues
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U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei sought clarity from Iran on Friday about an atomic program the West fears may ultimately yield warheads.
A diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency said an IAEA investigation stonewalled by Iran for years until August had entered a final phase, addressing U.S. intelligence about past, covert attempts to "weaponize" atomic material.
Making his first Iran trip in almost two years, ElBaradei began talks with Iranian atomic energy chief Gholamreza Aghazadeh. On Saturday, he will meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
"Regarding the active cooperation of Iran with the agency (IAEA) and resolving ... important matters about Iran's nuclear issue, Tehran's relations with the agency have entered a new phase," the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Saeedi, told the official IRNA news agency.
ElBaradei's last visit in April 2006 made no headway in getting Iran to be open about a program it maintains is meant only to generate energy but was long hidden from the IAEA.
The Tehran talks coincide with a Middle East tour by U.S. President George W. Bush, who has said Iran is a "threat to world peace" and is seeking Arab support to rein in Iran. Tehran dismisses U.S. charges and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.
The Islamic Republic and the United States are now embroiled in another row over a naval incident in the Strait of Hormuz. Washington says three of its warships were threatened by small Iranian craft on Sunday. Iran says it was a routine contact.
"We hope Mr ElBaradei in Iran, seeing more realities ... makes an effort to completely close Iran's dossier at the agency..." powerful cleric Ahmad Khatami said in a sermon.
The IAEA says the file cannot be closed before Iran allows wider inspections under the Additional Protocol to verify there is no secret nuclear activity geared to bomb-making.
No progress has been made on this issue, unlike the inquiry into Iran's nuclear history. But ElBaradei was expected to press for compliance with the Protocol, critical to defusing mistrust in Iran's intentions that prompted two sets of U.N. sanctions.
Influential ex-nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani suggested Iran would expand cooperation with the IAEA if its file were returned to the agency by the U.N. Security Council. The West rules that out without full compliance and a halt to enrichment.
Iran has rejected Security Council resolutions demanding an enrichment suspension in exchange for talks on trade benefits.
But prospects of harsher U.N. sanctions sought by Washington have receded since a U.S. intelligence report in December that said Iran apparently halted an active atomic bomb program in 2003. Iran denies ever having had such a program.
Some Western nations fear the U.S. report has eased pressure on Iran to heed international demands for restraint.
Iran said in August it would answer outstanding questions in sequence about its nuclear past but an end-of-year target mooted by ElBaradei for completing the process passed with the most sensitive issues still unresolved.
1. US Nuclear Deals with North Korea, India in Limbo
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US deals to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive and to bring India into the loop of global atomic commerce are in a limbo amid doubts they can be wrapped up before President George W. Bush leaves office in a year.
The deal with North Korea under a six-nation agreement had been progressing well last year until Pyongyang failed to meet a December 31 deadline to fully declare its nuclear program and disable its key plutonium reactor.
Washington says it has evidence that Pyongyang has imported material for a suspected uranium enrichment program aside from its plutonium activities.
The elusive North Koreans, on the other hand, have vowed to slow down their nuclear disablement activities.
They claim the United States and the other parties in the deal have failed to meet their commitments, including providing North Korea with energy aid and diplomatic and security guarantees.
The impasse sets back the landmark nuclear accord reached four years after the Bush administration decided to bring a negotiated settlement to the nuclear turmoil in the Korean peninsula with the help of China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
"The declaration issue really could be a show stopper because how can you proceed with a commitment to eliminate North Korea's nuclear program completely if they haven't been transparent about the whole program," Robert Einhorn, a former US government non-proliferation chief, told AFP.
"In other words, if they are continuing to deny part of it, how can you count on them to eliminate the whole thing? It is something that has to be addressed, you can't work around it, you can't sweep it under the rug," he said.
Even if the North Koreans are able to convince Washington that they have washed their hands of any uranium enrichment program and the deal persists, the hawks within the Bush administration will not take it lying down, said Sharon Squassoni, a former nuclear safeguards expert in the State Department.
The Clinton administration in 2002 scrapped a deal to freeze Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive after accusing it of pursuing a covert program to produce highly enriched uranium, based on intelligence information.
"The neocons (neo-conservatives) within the administration will now say that we are back to square one, except that North Korea has also now tested a nuclear weapon," Squassoni said.
But chief US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill, who is in the region trying to salvage the deal, called for patience, saying neither the North nor its negotiating partners "want to walk away" from the deal.
The nuclear deal with India is virtually stuck on two fronts -- in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration, where communist and other leftist coalition parties are against it, and at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where New Delhi is struggling to forge critical atomic safeguards.
Bush and Singh agreed more than two years ago that Washington would provide India with nuclear fuel and technology even though the Asian nation has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But India had to place selected nuclear facilities under international safeguards, including inspections, which has to be agreed upon by the IAEA board of directors.
A third round of talks between Indian and IAEA officials ended last week without resolution on India's demands for a mechanism to create a strategic reserve to meet lifetime fuel supply for its civilian nuclear plants, as well as "corrective measures" in the event of stoppage of fuel to power plants, experts said.
Even if IAEA agreed on the safeguards, the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, another regulatory body which also operates by consensus, has to agree to a US proposal to exempt India from a "full scope safeguards" condition of nuclear supply.
Then, an operational agreement for the nuclear deal that has already been adopted by India and the United States as well as the IAEA safeguards has to be approved by the US Congress before summer for it to be implemented by year end, experts said.
The deadline stems from a tight 2008 legislative calendar ahead of the November US presidential elections.
"There will be a very, very significant push to complete it this year but it is going to be tough. Even if everything works perfectly, it is still going to be tough," Squassoni said.
Although the US Congress has agreed in principle to the Indian nuclear deal, Einhorn said that there could be a delay and some controversial issues associated with it.
"There will be some members of Congress who will say this should be dealt by the next president and the next Congress," he said.
"At the end of the day, the votes are probably there but it's not going to breeze through Congress."
1. IAEA Seeks to Soothe Pakistan Ire over ElBaradei Comments
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The UN atomic watchdog has attempted to smooth over a spat with Pakistan over recent comments made by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei on the issue of nuclear safety.
A spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency insisted Thursday that ElBaradei's comments were intended to "call attention to the need to bolster nuclear safety and security measures, not only in Pakistan, but also everywhere in the world where nuclear materials or facilities exist."
ElBaradei and the IAEA "follow closely all situations that could have a potential impact on nuclear safety and security anywhere," said the agency's spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.
"This remains the core of the agency's mission."
ElBaradei had wanted to underline the need to boost nuclear safety worldwide amid "concern about the possible ramifications of political violence and extremism in the Middle East region and nuclear security in Pakistan," she said.
The statement came after Islamabad angrily dismissed what it percieved to be ElBaradei's criticism of Pakistan's atomic weapons safety.
Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq had told a weekly press briefing on Wednesday that ElBaradei should "be careful about his statements and ought to remain within his mandate".
"Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapons state," Sadiq insisted.
"Our nuclear weapons are as secure as any other nuclear weapons state. We therefore believe statements expressing concern about their safety and security are unwarranted and irresponsible."
The day before, ElBaradei had been quoted in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat as saying he feared "chaos... or an extremist regime could take root in that country, which has 30 to 40 warheads", and was "worried that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of an extremist group in Pakistan or in Afghanistan".
There has been worldwide concern over the security of Pakistan's atomic arsenal since President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November, which was subsequently lifted.
Fears for the stability of the Islamic republic have grown since the December 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Sadiq said ElBaradei ignored the fact that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal was subject to multi-layered safeguards and controls.
"Our civilian nuclear programme is under IAEA safeguards and we have always fully complied with IAEA obligations," he said.
Germany will uphold staunch political opposition to atomic energy, unperturbed by the mood swinging back in favour of nuclear power elsewhere.
Oil at record highs, climate worries, and the need to cut dependency on energy imports is due to move the British government to back new nuclear power plants on Thursday.
But Germany, Europe's biggest and most central power market, will not follow suit.
Faced with a critical and vigilant electorate, no German government will be able to turn back a seven-year old nuclear exit programme for its 17 reactors which must be completed in 2021.
Nor will anyone suggest a new generation of power plants.
"There is no majority either inside the parliament or in the population to go back on the withdrawal programme, or to back new reactors," said Rainer Baake, a Green Party politician and former state secretary in the Berlin environment ministry.
"The reasons are the same as ever, the unresolved nuclear safety and waste disposal issues. If civilian use is sanctioned, this could also invite military uses and terror attacks," he said, naming hard reasons that unify nuclear critics.
What's more, many German citizens combine their antagonism for nuclear power with dreams that their energy could be safe, clean and cheap, even if the current energy mix is far from it.
Conservative national newspaper FAZ recently polled Germans about where most power was likely to come from over the next three decades. A startling 63 percent believed it could be from solar energy, 50 percent banked on wind power while just 39 percent named nuclear, 35 percent gas, and 12 percent coal.
The reality, however, is that coal provides half of all German electricity, nuclear under a third and hot favourite solar only 0.4 percent.
Germans' hostile stance on nuclear power, coupled with a somewhat romantic view of nuclear's real contribution -- which turns a blind eye to nuclear imports from France and the Czech Republic -- reflects the Green movement's strong influence.
Many of today's decision makers grew up at a time when the green cause was the leading civil rights movement, parts of which scorned technology, yet dreamt of a sustainable future.
"Those who became politically aware in that era have their identity invested in that world view and wouldn't change it even if they knew better," said a source, who wanted to be unnamed.
Nevertheless, green ideology has produced strong research on alternative energy and thriving renewables industries that make Germany immune to some of nuclear energy's promises.
Renewable energy accounted for more than 14 percent of German power consumption in 2007, up from almost 12 percent in 2006, with wind as the main contributor, industry data show.
"It may seem attractive for some countries to invest in nuclear power to get around the problems of supply security and dependency on energy imports," said Uwe Fritsche of the Oeko Institut for applied ecology, an independent think tank.
"Our argument is that the same money would go further if it was spent on a sensible mix of energy efficiency and renewables investments, but that would involve more players so that it might be more complicated to achieve," said Fritsche, the institute's coordinator for energy and climate protection.
Baake and Fritsche said showcase nuclear projects such as Finland's new plant or those yet to be built in China were not economically feasible without state guarantees and subsidies.
German anti-nuclear lobbies have also seized on studies suggesting a higher susceptibility to leukaemia in children living near nuclear plants and on nuclear safety glitches at operator Vattenfall Europe last summer.
Vattenfall misjudged the mood of the population about safety incidents at two plants. It gave too little information too late and was promptly punished with the loss of 200,000 customers.
Germany's planned nuclear phase-out remains one of the most divisive issues in Chanellor Angela Merkel's coalition government of conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD), even if it is currently swept under the carpet as local elections are coming up and national elections are due next year.
Under the deal, operator RWE's Biblis A, EnBW's Neckar 1 and Vattenfall's Brunsbuettel power stations would in theory have to be shut over the next two years.
The utilities have been accused of playing for time by lengthening repair downtimes and seeking to borrow production quotas from newer nuclear plants in the hope the conservatives will win the next election and reverse the exit deal from 2010.
Merkel is in favour of lengthening the plants' life times, but will not risk an open row with the SPD, which stands by the exit deal struck by former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Utility heads and conservative Economy Minister Michael Glos frequently point out that nuclear energy must be kept alive to allow renewable industries to catch up, as Germany must meet long-term commitments to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
"In this situation, the politicians must bite the bullet and support nuclear because of Germany's environmental obligations," said Berthold Hannes, energy expert at consultancy Bain & Company. "I can't see a realistic scenario for replacing nuclear power in Germany, especially with CO2-free production."
Simmering debate of a nuclear energy relaunch in Italy, banned 20 years ago in a referendum, got a fresh boost on Wednesday with the news that major utilities were to draft a plan to build nuclear power stations.
A newly created think tank Energy Lab, which includes experts from leading Italian utilities A2A A2.MI and Edison (EDN.MI: Quote, Profile, Research), will soon start a feasibility study to build at least three or four nuclear power plants in Italy, a source familiar with the situation said, confirming a report in Il Sole 24 Ore.
"We should start thinking now about what will happen in 10-15 years... If Italy decides to relaunch the nuclear, it would make sense only if it covered about 10 percent of internal needs," the source said.
Italy banned nuclear power after the 1987 referendum in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.
Calls for a nuclear renaissance have intensified in recent years as Italy, with scant energy resources, seeks to diversify supplies and ease dependence on fuel imports.
The feasibility study would be presented to Italy's Economic Development Minister Pierluigi Bersani who oversees energy issues and has said in the past that current conditions did not permit a nuclear relaunch in Italy.
On Wednesday, Bersani reiterated his stance that Italy should actively participate in international scientific research in new generation nuclear power but stopped short of throwing his weight behind the new plan.
"We want to be among the leading players in the new generation nuclear research. I believe it's the right thing for us," he told reporters when asked about the feasibility study.
Italian energy sector leaders, including Umberto Quadrino, CEO of Edison which is controlled by the French nuclear power giant EDF (EDF.PA: Quote, Profile, Research), have recently been pushing for lifting the 20-year ban to meet the growing power demand and trim emissions of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels.
But even supporters of the nuclear energy relaunch say if the ban was lifted it would take 10-15 years to build a nuclear plant in Italy, given lengthy permitting procedures.
Some experts are even more sceptical, pointing at public hostility to any big industrial project and lack of investors in such long-term projects.
"In Italy we have a culture of distrust of modern technologies, in industrialisation," said Davide Tabarelli, president of think tank Nomisma Energia.
"There is a strong negative attitude towards any industrial project -- be it a regasification terminal, an incinerator or a waste dump, let alone a nuclear plant... It is impossible to relaunch nuclear in this country," Tabarelli said.
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