1. Iran Tests Advanced Centrifuges with Gas: Diplomats
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Iran has introduced small amounts of uranium gas into advanced centrifuges it is testing at its main nuclear complex, diplomats said, in a further step towards gaining the means to develop atom bombs if it chooses.
A European Union diplomat said the move was a "stunning rejection" of repeated U.N. Security Council demands that Iran suspend sensitive nuclear activity, and could hasten passage of broader sanctions drafted by six world powers.
Iran says it wants to enrich uranium only to produce electricity so that it can export more oil. But it is under sanctions for hiding the program until 2003, preventing U.N. inspectors since then from verifying it is wholly peaceful, and refusing to suspend it.
Diplomats familiar with U.N. nuclear watchdog inspections disclosed last week that Iran had begun "dry runs," without nuclear material, of a more efficient, durable centrifuge to replace an erratic old model it now uses to enrich uranium.
They said Iran had now begun test-feeding token quantities of uranium "UF6" gas into a few of the "new generation" centrifuges in the pilot wing of the Natanz enrichment complex. No further details were immediately available.
International Atomic Energy Agency officials had no comment, saying details would come in a report IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei will deliver to the Vienna-based agency's 35-nation Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council next week.
The "IR-2" centrifuge, an adaptation of a Pakistani model whose design Iran obtained in the 1990s from the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network, could refine uranium 2-3 times as fast as the antiquated model Iran has used to date.
Tehran's quest to produce usable amounts of nuclear fuel has been hampered by problems getting its existing "P-1" line of centrifuges to spin nonstop at maximum speed. Iran had 3,000 P-1s working by November, a basis for launching industrial-scale enrichment, but only at an estimated 10 percent of capacity.
Three thousand P-1s could yield enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb in about a year if run at full capacity, but it would take only 1,200 of the IR2s to do so, U.S. nuclear analyst David Albright said in a commentary last week.
Diplomats tracking the IAEA's Iran file said last week that Iran had decided to install no more P-1s in Natanz's vast underground production hall and to expand capacity using only their more advanced successor.
Iran revealed in 2006 that it was developing supposedly state-of-the-art centrifuges at workshops put off-limits to IAEA inspectors in retaliation for steps by Western powers to impose initial sanctions on Tehran.
The IAEA got a first, one-off look at the advanced centrifuge effort when Iran allowed ElBaradei to visit a workshop in Tehran last month in a gesture of transparency, diplomats close to the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog said.
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said in December that Iran stopped trying to devise a nuclear warhead in 2003, shortly after Iranian exiles exposed secret enrichment activity.
But the NIE also said Iran would gradually acquire the latent ability to assemble nuclear weapons through its considerable expansion of enrichment infrastructure since then.
2. Russia's Foreign Minister Criticizes Iran for its Nuclear and Missile Programs
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Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday that Moscow disapproves of Iran's uranium enrichment efforts and its missile program ï¿½ a statement signaling that the Kremlin was edging closer to Western concerns about Iran's nuclear course.
"We don't approve of Iran's continuously demonstrating its intentions to develop its missile industry and continue uranium enrichment," Sergey Lavrov told Russian news wires on his way back from Slovenia. "From the point of view of international law, these activities aren't forbidden. However, it's necessary to take into account that the past years have shown a number of problems related to Iran's nuclear program."
The U.S. and its allies suspect Tehran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, but Iran insists its uranium enrichment program is intended solely for civilian energy needs.
Lavrov urged Iran to refrain from taking a defiant posture toward international demands. "It would be reasonable to refrain from steps and statements heating the atmosphere and creating an impression that Iran is inclined to ignore the international community," he said.
Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear plant, last month completed the shipment of uranium fuel for it. However, it has shared Western concerns about Iran's uranium enrichment effort and backed international calls on Tehran to freeze it.
Russia voiced disapproval last week when Iran test-fired a rocket which it said will be used to launch research satellites into space. The U.S. State Department said the launch was a "troubling" show of a technology that could be used to fire long-range ballistic missiles.
Russia in the past has been skeptical about Iran's missile capability, saying it will take a long time to build long-range missiles.
Last month, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council ï¿½ the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China ï¿½ along with Germany agreed on the basic terms of a new resolution that calls for additional sanctions against Iran, including banning travel and freezing assets.
Lavrov said Russia continues to believe that concerns over the Iranian nuclear program could be solved through talks.
"Opportunities still exist for starting talks on final settlement of all problems related to the Iranian nuclear program," Lavrov was quoted as saying. "It's necessary that all participants in this process be guided by a desire to solve this problem, assuage concerns related to potential risks and threats and not proceed from other reasons related to a political agenda."
1. Ex-U.S. Officials Orchestrate Korea Nuclear Diplomacy
Ken Fireman and Bradley K. Martin
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Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg said he will urge North Korean officials to move forward quickly on a denuclearization agreement when he visits their capital with ex-Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
Gregg said he, Perry and former deputy assistant secretary of state Evans Revere expect to meet North Korea's nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan while in Pyongyang to attend a Feb. 26 concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Implementation of the deal is stalled because of U.S. complaints that North Korea hasn't made a full disclosure of its nuclear weapons and power programs, as required under the agreement. North Koreans may be dragging their feet out of uncertainty over whether to proceed while U.S. President George W. Bush is still in office, Gregg said.
``I will tell them that they should not wait,'' he said in an interview today. Gregg said he will say, ``You need to take full advantage of what the Bush administration is now urging you to do, and move quickly on it.''
Gregg said the administration, while aware of his planned visit to Pyongyang, isn't encouraging or sponsoring it. He said he plans to brief the U.S. negotiator in the nuclear talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, on his trip shortly before he leaves for Korea.
North Korea completed the first phase of the accord by shutting down its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in July and starting to dismantle it in November. The U.S. says the regime failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for disclosing its nuclear programs, including any uranium enrichment activities and technology transfers to other countries.
Last month, North Korean state media accused the U.S. of failing to meet a pledge to remove the communist country from a list of nations deemed state sponsors of terrorism.
The nuclear agreement among North Korea and five other nations -- the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- was signed last year. It provides for North Korea to receive 1 million metric tons of fuel oil, or the equivalent in aid, and for diplomatic ties with the U.S. to be normalized, in return for dismantling its nuclear efforts.
Gregg said he, Perry and Revere plan to travel to North Korea from Seoul across the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries after attending the Feb. 25 inauguration of Lee Myung-Bak as South Korean president. Their Pyongyang visit was previously reported by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
Perry's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Gregg is chairman and Revere is president of the New York-based Korea Society, which promotes U.S.-Korean understanding and helped plan the American orchestra's visit.
The concert in some way resembles China's 1971 ``ping-pong diplomacy,'' when its invitation to a U.S. table tennis team was followed by then U.S. President Richard Nixon's February 1972 visit and establishment of bilateral relations.
``This is way up the scale'' from the ping-pong analogy, Gregg said. ``This is involving a couple of hundred people. The preparations are extensive, and the aftermath will be extensive.
``I call it a 16-inch broadside of soft power fired by the Philharmonic,'' he said.
Gregg said the North Korean regime is making ``remarkable adjustments'' to facilitate the concert, including providing the orchestra with a scarlet Steinway piano.
While Perry resigned as defense secretary in January 1997, he returned to President Bill Clinton's administration as an adviser and presented a 1999 report that laid out a comprehensive approach to North Korea, which became known as the ``Perry process.''
Both in and out of office, Perry from time to time threatened or suggested the possibility of military action to halt North Korean development of weapons of mass destruction, if necessary. Still, he argued that peaceful engagement with the country should be given a chance to bear fruit.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will also be in Seoul for the inauguration, has no plans to go on to North Korea, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said today in an e-mail. Nor do any other Bush administration officials.
``My guess is that the North Koreans are planning to sit out the Bush administration and wait to deal with President Obama,'' said Michael Breen, the Seoul-based author of a biography of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il. ``Musical diplomacy and entreaties by U.S. visitors later this month won't dissuade them, unless it is accompanied by a surprise visit by Ms. Rice.''
1. Atomic Renaissance Threatened by Critical Skills Shortage
Science Business Bulletin
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Almost twenty-two years after the Chernobyl disaster, Europeï¿½s need for energy security and its low carbon footprint is bringing nuclear power back into favour. At the same time, Russia is emerging as the worldï¿½s atomic energy superpower.
Last month, the UK gave the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear power stations, setting no limits on nuclear expansion and adding further momentum to the industryï¿½s worldwide renaissance. But news that construction of Finlandï¿½s new nuclear plant has fallen behind by two years is fuelling heated debate on the environmental credentials and economics of nuclear power and ï¿½ crucially - whether the skills exist to bring the industry into the twenty-first century.
Olkiluto-3 is the first nuclear plant ordered in Western Europe since the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It was scheduled to come on line in 2009, but this has now been postponed until 2011, increasing the construction budget from $3 billion to $4.4 billion.
Supporters of nuclear energy argue that higher construction costs will be balanced by the lower fuel costs. But with only marginal differences between the cost of electricity generation from nuclear or coal-fired plants, delivering plants on time and to budget is crucial.
The Finnish plant, being built by Franceï¿½s Areva and the German company Siemens, is seen as a test case for Europeï¿½s nuclear future. The whole project is being closely watched by older EU member states, many of which, like the UK, plan to pile investment into the nuclear industry in the next few years.
A generation retired
But outside France the industry in Europe has been dormant for at least 20 years. Even in those countries that formerly had the expertise most experts are now retired and there are widespread skills shortages.
ï¿½The nuclear industry went through a very unpopular period in the 80s and early 90s,ï¿½ says Paul Howarth, Director of Research at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University in the UK. ï¿½Even in the UK, where we still have a nuclear industry, we just about have enough expertise to evaluate new reactor designs. There is a serious need to refresh our skills base.ï¿½
Following on from the decision to build new atomic power stations, last month the UK government announced the formation of The National Skills Academy for Nuclear, to assist employers in the sector with training the 5,900 to 9,000 graduates and 2,700 to 4,500 skilled trades that will be needed over the next ten years. The UKï¿½s new plants are to be located on the sites of existing generators, which must be decommissioned first, making decommissioning skills the first priority.
In the meantime, the UK and other countries in Europe will have to look abroad to get the skills they need to bring the industry forward. ï¿½Student secondments and exchanges are already on the increase through the European Framework Programme,ï¿½ says Howarth. But there is international competition for skills. ï¿½Countries outside Europe, such as Korea, Canada and Japan, are looking at ways to increase student mobility by providing opportunities for more overseas work and secondments.ï¿½
Given the pivotal role of the Chernobyl disaster in nuclearï¿½s long fall from grace, it is curious that no company, or country, has managed to gain as much momentum in recent years as Russia.
Russiaï¿½s nuclear drive
Atomstroyexport, a former branch of the Soviet Atomic Energy Ministry is building seven nuclear reactors in Iran, China, Bulgaria and India, more it claims, than any competitor. Three of the construction projects involve the Generation III water-moderated, water-cooled 1000 MW light water reactor. The competition for building new reactors around the world is focused on such third-generation technologies.
In recent years Atomstroyexport took over the building of a reactor for Iran at the Bushehr power plant from Siemens. It sold two reactors to China, to be built at Tianwan, and two units are under construction in India at Kudankulam.
ï¿½Russia has a major domestic capability in nuclear science, engineering and reactor design, much of it originally generated from Cold War times and spin-offs from bomb technology,ï¿½ says Gordon MacKerron, director of the Sussex Energy Group at Sussex University.
And despite charges that Russia is holding Europe to ransom over control of more traditional hydrocarbon energy supplies, the country is increasingly willing to bring its expertise to mainstream nuclear energy development. Last year saw a spate of international agreements.
Russia had been participating for some years in the OECDï¿½s Nuclear Energy Agencyï¿½s (NEA) work on reactor safety and nuclear regulation and is hosting an NEA project on reactor vessel melt-through.
In March of last year, the Russians signed a collaboration deal with NEA. ï¿½This agreement is expected to assist Russiaï¿½s integration into the OECD,ï¿½ says Anton Krawchenko, an analyst at Fitch Ratings, the risk assessment agency. Then in April 2007, Red Star, a government owned design bureau and US company Thorium Power agreed to collaborate on testing Thorium Powerï¿½s seed and blanket fuel assemblies. Also in April, French company Alstom and Atomenergomash set up a joint partnership to manufacture the turbine and generator portions of nuclear power plants.
Building on Russiaï¿½s strong position in the industry in December 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified a law consolidating all of the countryï¿½s nuclear assets to form a state-run nuclear superstructure called Rosatom, thought to be the largest nuclear company in the world.
According to Krawchenko, ï¿½Rosatom is keen to become involved in international projects for Generation IV reactor development and is keen to have international participation in fast neutron reactor development, as well as joint proposals for MOX fuel fabrication.ï¿½ Russia is the main operator of BREST, one of the six technologies that the Generation IV Forum believes represent the future shape of nuclear energy. The forum is an international initiative designed to engender international cooperation on the development of fourth-generation reactor systems for 2030 and beyond.
ï¿½The reality today is that cross-border cooperation will increase out of necessity,ï¿½ says Howarth. ï¿½There are very few countries that can stand alone any more and it takes major investment and skill to develop nuclear technology.ï¿½
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