1. IAEA's Iran Probe Moves into Final Stage: Diplomat
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A U.N. inquiry into Iran's nuclear activity has entered its final phase with Tehran addressing U.S. intelligence about secret, past efforts to "weaponize" atomic material, a diplomat close to the process said on Tuesday.
The development coincides with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei's decision to pay a rare visit to Tehran on Friday and Saturday for talks with Iranian leaders to speed efforts to clarify Iran's past and present nuclear work.
Tehran denies its program to generate electricity from enriching uranium is a facade for bomb-making. It long refused even to discuss intelligence obtained by U.N. inspectors pointing to military diversions, rejecting it as propaganda.
Therefore IAEA officials see Tehran's new readiness to examine and respond to the information as a potentially important step to rebuild confidence in its nuclear intentions.
Ahead of ElBaradei, IAEA officials flew into Tehran late on Monday to resume talks aimed at resolving lingering questions about the program. Iran hid it from the IAEA until 2003 and stonewalled inquiries until agreeing last August to come clean.
After broadly clarifying how work began with materials obtained from nuclear smugglers, Iran has begun substantive talks with IAEA officials on the intelligence about attempts to militarize the program, the diplomat said.
"The work plan (transparency process) is now looking at 'weaponization', so it's now in its final phase, or chapter, and this is very significant."
The issue involves alleged administrative and research links between processing of uranium ore, testing high explosives and designing a missile warhead. Iran has denied any such links.
The diplomat denied accounts from some Western sources in Vienna two weeks ago that Iran was apparently balking at dealing with the last, most sensitive issues in the investigation.
The reports surfaced as some U.S.-led Western powers were renewing a case for harsher U.N. sanctions against Iran, and as ElBaradei's mooted time frame for completing the inquiry by the end of 2007 passed with issues still outstanding.
They also followed a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on December 3 that said Iran had shelved a covert nuclear arms drive in 2003. This undercut the White House stance that Tehran was actively seeking a bomb and a U.S. push for tough sanctions.
Western diplomats said the NIE could undo Iran's motivation to come clean to the IAEA, although Washington said Iran could resume efforts to build a bomb since it curbs U.N. inspections.
The diplomat close to the IAEA said senior agency officials had not noticed such an NIE effect on Iran.
"Reports of Iran posing new obstacles are not true. ElBaradei mentioned the end of 2007 timeline to help put pressure on Iran but he never thought everything would be resolved by then," the diplomat said.
Western diplomats remained skeptical of Iran's readiness to open up entirely if, they said, this risked self-incrimination.
"On weaponization, it may be too optimistic. The main shift in Iran's stance could be from, 'It's all fabrications,' to, 'We will look at the documents.' Providing answers and explanations will be another step," one Western diplomat told Reuters.
ElBaradei now hopes to wrap up the inquiry by the next session of the IAEA's 35-nation governing board in March. But resolving past issues would not put Iran in the clear.
Tehran has done little to satisfy international demands for transparency about the scope of its current program, by ending curbs on inspector movements meant to verify there is no more covert activity. ElBaradei was to press this point in Tehran.
1. US, SKorea Push for Swift Start to NKorea Nuclear Talks: Report
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The United States and South Korea will push for an early resumption of North Korea disarmament talks, Yonhap news agency said, as US envoy Christopher Hill Tuesday urged Pyongyang to provide a complete account of its nuclear programmes.
"We discussed ways of resuming the six-way talks and shared the understanding on the need for holding the talks at an early date," South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Chun Yung-Woo said after discussions with Hill, Yonhap reported.
Chun did not elaborate on a date. Hill, who after Seoul heads for talks in China and Russia, earlier said he would hold talks with Chinese officials on setting the next date of the six-party talks, which are hosted by Beijing and also include Japan and Russia.
The US envoy said North Korea "is not quite ready to be giving us a complete listing of all their programmes, all their facilities and all their nuclear materials. So that is the key issue."
The communist country should have disabled its key nuclear facilities by December 31 and given a full declaration of its nuclear programmes in return for economic aid under a deal agreed a year ago at six-party talks.
But it missed the deadline. A North Korean foreign ministry statement last week said that Pyongyang was near to completing the disabling and gave a full account to Washington in November -- a claim Washington denied. "I'm not too concerned about being a little late. The main concern is when they do give a declaration, we want it to be complete," Hill told reporters here after a trip to Japan.
Washington says it has evidence that Pyongyang has imported material for a suspected uranium enrichment programme along with plutonium-based activities. North Koreans have never admitted any uranium operation.
"They have not wanted to list programmes we know about," Hill said while refusing to go into specific details.
The North has slowed compliance with the six-party deal, accusing the other parties of failing to deliver promised aid and said Washington had yet to remove Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
North Korea has so far received about 150,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 5,000 tonnes of steel as an alternative form of aid, according to Seoul.
"The disablement has gone well. I know they (North Koreans) talk about slowing down, but frankly a lot of actions have been completed," Hill said.
On Thursday, Hill will meet South Korea's president-elect Lee Myung-Bak, who has signalled a tougher line on the North than the outgoing Roh Moo-Hyun.
Lee has urged the North to fully scrap its nuclear weapons programmes in return for major economic aid from Seoul. He takes office next month.
"We would look forward to having a very close relationship with the next government," Hill said, stressing the need for a strong US-South Korea alliance to resolve the nuclear issue.
Hill, who also called for a "100 percent declaration" from North Korea at Monday's talks with his Japanese counterpart Kenichiro Sasae in Tokyo, said a full account was crucial to moving on to end its nuclear ambitions.
Under a proposed final phase of the deal, the North is to dismantle its plants and hand over all nuclear materials in return for diplomatic relations with the US and Japan and a formal peace treaty on the Korean peninsula.
1. N-power: Govt May Look at Africa for Uranium Supplies
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With the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal seemingly off the radar for now, the Government is likely to explore the possibility of sourcing uranium from elsewhere, directly or indirectly, for its civilian nuclear programme. The supply could be from non-Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) countries, especially the West African nations of Niger and Namibia.
A breakthrough of sorts has already been made by a Mumbai-based private company, Taurian Resources, which recently bagged exclusive rights for exploration and mining of uranium in the Arlit region of Niger, which is the fifth largest supplier of uranium globally.
While a direct mode of investments could entail getting a PSU under the Department of Atomic Energy to invest in uranium mines abroad, the indirect option involves sourcing uranium from firms such as Taurian Resources, which get rights to mine the uranium in non-NSG countries, a Government official said.
ï¿½NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd) has been actively looking at the possibilities of buying stakes in mining companies abroad. While any immediate move in this regard hinges almost entirely on the progress of the Indo-US deal and talks with NSG countries, which in all respects is the best case scenario, all other options are also being looked at.
ï¿½The progress by Taurian Resources is bold and encouraging. However, all such ventures are being looked at with the long-time horizon, since actual mining of uranium from such a venture could take years to yield results,ï¿½ the official said.
Another catch could be that non-NSG countries such as Niger and Namibia are party to the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, which aims at establishing a nuclear-weapons free zone in Africa. According to experts, once the treaty comes into force, these member-nations could also seek full-scope safeguards for any transfer of nuclear material to non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states, including India.
The 45-member NSG has a stranglehold on the global nuclear commerce, controlling close to an estimated 80 per cent of the worldï¿½s uranium reserves and about 78 per cent of its production. Niger and Namibia, along with Uzbekistan, are the only three non-NSG countries producing sizeable amounts of uranium. Niger has recently issued a total of 23 permits to three Canadian firms, three British firms and Taurian Resources, which is the first Indian firm to bag a mine abroad.
Uranium is incidentally the largest export item for Niger. China is already a big investor in Niger, with Chinese firms having bagged a series of exploration licences in the past.
Pakistan angrily rejected on Thursday remarks by the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of Islamist militants.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), expressed his fears about Pakistan's nuclear weapons in an interview with the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.
His comments were widely reported in Pakistani newspapers on Wednesday and follow similar concerns raised by some U.S. nuclear experts and politicians as militant violence and political turmoil rock the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
But the Foreign Ministry dismissed ElBaradei's remarks as "unwarranted and irresponsible".
"Pakistan rejects the statement by Dr ElBaradei," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq told a regular news briefing.
"As head of the IAEA, which is a U.N. body, he has to be careful about his statements which ought to remain within the parameters of his mandate."
Pakistan is a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign against global terrorism but deteriorating security in the country, particularly after last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, has raised international concern about the safety of its nuclear weapons.
Some security experts fear that nuclear materials could fall into the hands of Islamist militants if the country descended into chaos.
ElBaradei echoed that concern.
"I fear that chaos ... or an extremist regime could take root in that country which has 30 to 40 warheads," he was quoted as saying in the interview.
Sadiq said a section of the international media was waging a propaganda campaign against Pakistan, adding that fears about the safety of its nuclear weapons was misplaced.
"Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapon state. Our nuclear weapons are as secure as that of any other nuclear weapon state," he said.
Despite the concerns raised by nuclear experts, especially since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Washington believes Pakistan's arsenal remains secure.
U.S. military and defense officials say the weapons are safely under Pakistani military control.
Sadiq said a three-member U.S. Congressional delegation visiting Pakistan this week had met officials of the military-led Strategic Plans Division, which has oversight for Pakistan's nuclear weapons. He gave no details.
The security of Pakistan's nuclear program, begun in the early 1970s, has been of international concern since the 1990s when suspicions emerged that A.Q. Khan, the head of the program, was trading nuclear know-how.
Khan confessed on national television in 2004, admitting that Iran and Libya had been among his clients. The next day he was pardoned by Musharraf. Despite the proliferation breach, the United States imposed no sanctions.
Pakistan has emerged as a hot topic in the United States as politicians compete in their parties' primaries in the run-up to the November presidential election.
Sadiq said Pakistan would maintain its important ties with the United States no matter which party came to power.
"The government of Pakistan would deal with any government which comes into power, any administration which comes into power in Washington," he said.
"The Pakistan-U.S. relationship is a very important relationship. It's not only important for the United States or for Pakistan but it's also important for the peace and stability of the whole region."
1. China to Contribute 1.4 Billion Dollars to ITER
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China will contribute 1.4 billion dollars to an international nuclear fusion project that aims to emulate the power of the sun to provide limitless clean energy, state press said Tuesday.
The 10 billion yuan (1.4 billion dollars) would make up about 10 percent of the cost of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) to be built in France and expected to go online by 2016, the China Daily said.
"The goal of the project is to find a shortcut to solve our energy shortages," the paper quoted Luo Delong, vice head of the ITER China Office, as telling a scientific forum in Beijing.
Half of China's contribution is expected to be spent during the 10-year construction phase of the project located in Cadarache, France, it said.
The experimental fusion reactor is a project backed by the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, the United States and India.
The project aims to research a clean and limitless alternative to dwindling fossil fuel reserves by testing nuclear fusion technologies.
Instead of splitting the atom -- the principle behind current nuclear plants -- the project seeks to harness nuclear fusion: the power of the sun and the stars achieved by fusing together atomic nuclei.
If it is successful, a prototype commercial reactor will be built, and if that works, fusion technology will be rolled out across the world.
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