1. U.S.-Backed Russian Institutes Help Iran Build Reactor
New York Times
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The Energy Department is subsidizing two Russian nuclear institutes that are building important parts of a reactor in Iran whose construction the United States spent years trying to stop, according to a House committee.
The institutes, both in Nizhny Novgorod, gave American officials copies of sales presentations that listed the Bushehr reactor, which Russia has agreed to fuel, as one of their projects. One institute is providing control systems, including control room equipment, and the other, hundreds of pumps and ventilation fans.
The Energy Department is subsidizing the institutes under the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, a program set up in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The program was intended to prevent newly impoverished scientists and their institutions from selling expertise to states or terrorist groups that want nuclear weapons.
The United States supplements the salaries of scientists and pays overhead at those institutes, according to the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.
It was not immediately clear whether the Energy Department was contributing to the salaries of the very scientists involved in the Bushehr reactor project. Two Michigan Democrats ï¿½ Representatives John D. Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, chairman of that committeeï¿½s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee ï¿½ asked that question in a letter sent on Wednesday to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.
ï¿½What policy logic justifies D.O.E. funding Russian institutes which are providing nuclear technology to Iran?ï¿½ the letter asked. ï¿½How does this advance our non-proliferation goals?ï¿½
Mr. Bodman is supposed to testify on Thursday before the Energy and Commerce Committee in a hastily scheduled hearing to explore the issue.
Mr. Dingell, in a telephone interview, pointed out that the State Department has accused Iran of using the Bushehr reactor as a cover for obtaining nuclear technology useful in a weapons program. And, he said, ï¿½Weï¿½ve got a bunch of federal laws that impose sanctions on U.S. companies that develop Iranï¿½s oil.ï¿½
But under the nonproliferation program, he said, ï¿½Weï¿½ve got U.S. money providing assistance to help develop a reactor that weï¿½re busy denouncing.ï¿½
Mr. Dingell said the committee would also pursue whether the Energy Department was subsidizing any institutes that worked with North Korea, Syria or other countries that are developing nuclear weapons or may be seeking to do so.
But the Energy Department said in a statement Wednesday evening, ï¿½We are confident that none of the projects cited by the House committee, or any of the departmentï¿½s scientist engagement projects with Russia, support nuclear work in Iran.ï¿½
The statement added, ï¿½We take all measures necessary to ensure that neither money nor technology falls into the hands of countries of concern.ï¿½
Individual projects are cleared by the Defense Department, the State Department and intelligence agencies, according to the Energy Department.
An Energy Department official said, ï¿½What weï¿½re doing is very important to engage these scientists as part of a nonproliferation goal.ï¿½ The official requested anonymity because his response had not gone through official channels.
The Energy Department has approved projects with the two institutes worth $4 million, according to the letter sent by the committee chairmen to Mr. Bodman on Wednesday, but the Energy Department official said that sum included a $1 million project that might have been canceled.
Because of the design of Bushehr, a civilian electric power plant, it would be cumbersome to recover the plutonium that is the byproduct of its operations. In addition, Russia has announced that it will take back the spent fuel from the plant, thus making the plutonium unavailable to Iran.
But the United States has looked with some alarm at Iran acquiring nuclear expertise. Iran wants to build a plant to enrich uranium and make its own reactor fuel, saying it wants to do so for civilian purposes. American officials complain that the enrichment technology could also be used to make warheads.
Mr. Dingell said, ï¿½Only this administration would complain about proliferation in Iran, as part of President Bushï¿½s axis of evil, and then finance it with American taxpayer dollars.ï¿½
Mr. Stupak called it ï¿½schizophrenic foreign policy.ï¿½
ï¿½We should not be doing business with institutes that help promote Iranï¿½s nuclear ambitions,ï¿½ he said.
The United States pays for a variety of projects at numerous ï¿½institutesï¿½ in Russia and other former Soviet countries. For example, at the Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems in Nizhny Novgorod, which is making control room equipment for Bushehr, the United States is paying $1.15 million for a project for radar mapping of geological structures, which could be used to locate underground mineral deposits.
A study of the American program by the Government Accountability Office released last month found that while the program was intended to provide support for former Soviet weapons scientists, many of those receiving benefits had done no weapons work, and some were not old enough to have worked as scientists during Soviet times.
An Energy Department official testifying before Mr. Stupak acknowledged at a hearing on Jan. 23 that parts of the program may have outlived the original intent.
The Bushehr reactor has had a long, involved history. In 1975 the shah of Iran ordered twin reactors from a German firm, Kraftwerke-Union, but work stopped after he was overthrown in 1979. The two units were bombed by the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980.
In 1995, the Iranian government contracted with Russia to finish the first unit, a major challenge because the standard Russian design was substantially different from the German design.
The reactor is supposed to begin producing power this year, Iranian officials said.
Iran has started building a second atomic power plant in an oil-rich region near the border with Iraq, Iran's Ambassador to Russia was quoted as saying on Friday by Itar-Tass news agency.
Gholamreza Ansari said construction had started at Darkhovin in south-western Khuzestan province. Iran has said it would construct a 360 megawatt plant at the site.
"Now we need to think about the fuel for it," Tass quoted him as saying at a news briefing in Moscow. A spokesman for the Iranian embassy confirmed the comment.
Iran has been building its first nuclear power plant near the southern city of Bushehr, where Tehran says test operations could start later this year. Final deliveries of nuclear fuel by Russia arrived at the plant last month.
Western countries suspect Iran's nuclear activities are aimed at weapon-building. Iran, the world's fourth largest crude oil producer, says it wants only to generate electricity so that it can export more oil and gas.
Iran wants to build other power plants by 2020 as part of a planned network with a capacity of 20,000 megawatt to satisfy soaring domestic electricity demand.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has mentioned the Darkhovin project in previous reports on Iran.
But Iran curbed access by the watchdog's inspectors to planned nuclear sites last year, and stopped providing design data on them, in retaliation for U.N. sanctions imposed on it.
A senior IAEA source declined to say whether those restrictions remained with respect to Darkhovin or other sites. The matter will be addressed in the next agency report on Iran due around Feb. 20.
The ambassador to Moscow said Iran had been trying to ease Russian concerns about its space programme after the test launch of a rocket this month.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Ministry Alexander Losyukov said this week the launch raised suspicions about the real nature of Iran's atomic programme.
"We are explaining to our friends that we are not pursuing any military goals as far as our space research is concerned," the ambassador was quoted as saying.
Iran is testing an advanced centrifuge at its Natanz nuclear complex, diplomats said on Wednesday, a move that could lead to Tehran enriching uranium much faster and gaining the means to build atom bombs.
Iran says it wants nuclear energy only for electricity so 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.
Tehran's quest to produce usable amounts of nuclear fuel has been hampered by problems getting a 1970s vintage of centrifuge, the "P-1", to run 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.
But diplomats tracking Iran's dossier said it had started mechanical tests, without nuclear material inside, of a more durable, efficient model in the pilot wing of the Natanz plant.
"The Iranians have begun to run in the advanced model. It's not yet known what stage the testing has reached or exactly how many there are, although it appears to be several dozen," said a Western diplomat with access to intelligence.
A senior diplomat familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency's file on Iran confirmed it recently began testing centrifuges based on a "P-2" design, used more recently in the West and able to enrich uranium 2-3 times as fast as the P-1.
He declined to elaborate, 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 later this month.
It was not known how successful the "dry runs" with the new machines had been or when they might be test-fed with uranium gas for enrichment. Iran had no immediate comment.
But diplomats and analysts said Iran had decided to install no more of the antiquated P-1s in Natanz's main, underground production hall and expand capacity instead only with their more efficient successor.
"On the positive side, (shifting advanced centrifuge activity) to the pilot plant at Natanz would bring the program under more international scrutiny (through IAEA inspections)," said David Albright, a physicist and non-proliferation expert.
"On balance, though, I believe this is a disturbing development. Iran appears to have made progress in secret on the P-2 and may now be close to enriching uranium with it," said Albright, head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an ex-U.N. weapons inspector.
Iran first 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 versed in the Iran file said.
This was no breakthrough in Western eyes. Diplomats said Iran could not defuse mistrust in its nuclear agenda unless it accepted a binding regime of broader, snap inspections by agency professionals, and suspended enrichment-related activity.
ElBaradei has urged Iran to adopt the IAEA's Additional Protocol, which would allow far-ranging inspections to assess how close Iran may be to mastering enrichment technology and verify that it is not being turned to illicit military ends.
But Tehran has linked fuller cooperation with an end to sanctions, extending a frozen war of nerves with Western powers over which side should make what gesture first.
A U.S. intelligence report in December said Iran stopped actively trying to "weaponize" nuclear materials in 2003.
But it also said Iran has made technical progress towards refining uranium in amounts sufficient for a bomb in 2-7 years, if it decided to do so at sites not declared to inspectors.
ElBaradei's report is expected to say the IAEA is closer to wrapping up an inquiry into Iran's past nuclear activities.
But six world powers have drafted wider Security Council sanctions against Iran, saying clarifying old issues counts for less than Tehran's failure to open the books on its present program or shelve enrichment in return for trade benefits.
1. North Korea Warns US Pressure Could Aggravate Nuclear Standoff
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North Korea warned the United States on Friday that pressuring the communist nation over its nuclear weapons programs will only aggravate the standoff and could lead to an "explosive crisis."
The North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper issued the warning, accusing what it called "hard-line conservative forces in the U.S." of seeking to increase pressure on Pyongyang in an attempt to disrupt efforts to end the nuclear dispute through dialogue.
"As shown in the previous nuclear crisises on the Korean peninsula, pursuing a policy of force would only bring about an explosive crisis, not a resolution of the problem," the paper said in a commentary, carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
"Everything achieved through dialogue so far would evaporate into the air," it said, warning of an unspecified "corresponding response if bellicose U.S. forces" continue to pressure the regime.
The paper accused hard-line U.S. officials of calling for an end to negotiations with North Korea over the nuclear dispute, raising the North's human rights record, and seeking to build a missile defense system in the region.
The warning came as six-nation talks on the nuclear dispute, which made progress in shutting down and disabling the North's nuclear reactor, are now at a deadlock over Pyongyang's refusal to provide a complete list of its nuclear programs.
North Korea says it gave the U.S. a declaration in November as it promised to do by the end of 2007, but Washington says Pyongyang never produced "complete and correct" documentation.
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul was not immediately available for comment on the Lunar New Year holiday.
Meanwhile, an aide to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and two U.S. experts on North Korea plan to visit the North next week to tour its main nuclear reactor and meet with officials there, Lugar's spokesman Andy Fisher said.
A focus of the visit by Keith Luse, the Lugar aide, and North Korea specialists Joel Wit and Siegfried Hecker, will be Pyongyang's interest in a U.S. program for dismantling Cold War-era weapons of mass destruction, Fisher said.
Lugar said Wednesday the program, which he co-founded, could be applied to North Korea.
British Secretary of Defense Des Browne is calling for a world free from nuclear weapons and urged cooperation among states to develop disarmament technologies.
Browne addressed an audience at the Conference on Nuclear Disarmament being held in Geneva, Switzerland. He called for greater cooperation among nuclear states saying the proliferation of nuclear material, technology and weapons "represents a grave threat to international security," the British Ministry of Defense reported.
Browne proposed a conference for technical experts from the five recognized nuclear armed states to come together in a collaborative effort to form the basis of a nuclear disarmament laboratory.
"The United Kingdom is determined to have a world free of nuclear weapons," Browne said in a statement. "But to get there we must first create an international environment that better supports disarmament.
"These challenges require a global solution. The international architecture to promote disarmament and counter proliferation is extensive, but still not sufficient. So we must continue to address these threats internationally."
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