The Defense Department mistakenly shipped secret nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan more than 18 months ago and did not learn that the items were missing until late last week, Pentagon officials acknowledged yesterday, deepening concerns about the security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Officials with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) sent four nose-cone fuse assemblies to Taiwan in August 2006 instead of four replacement battery packs for use in Taiwan's fleet of UH-1 Huey helicopters. The fuses help trigger nuclear warheads on Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles as they near their point of impact. It was unclear yesterday how the two very different items were mixed up at a warehouse at Hill Air Force Base in Utah and how they were shipped out of the country without notice.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates immediately ordered an investigation, the second such probe in the past year to examine serious lapses in the care of U.S. nuclear weapons and accessories. Gates learned of the erroneous shipment on Friday and informed President Bush, but officials waited until yesterday -- after Saturday's elections in Taiwan -- to disclose the incident. Pentagon and State Department officials have conferred with Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats over the past three days.
"In an organization as large as DOD, the largest and most complex in the world, there will be mistakes," said Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, speaking at the Pentagon yesterday. "But they cannot be tolerated in the arena of strategic systems, whether they are nuclear or only associated equipment, as was in this case." Gates found the incident "disconcerting," he added.
In August, the Air Force lost track of six nuclear warheads for 36 hours when they were inadvertently flown on a B-52 bomber between bases in North Dakota and Louisiana. The incident exposed security flaws and raised similar questions about the safety of U.S. nuclear weapons.
Senior defense officials said it was almost certainly human error that led to the nose cones being shipped, and Air Force officials were concerned the classified items were placed in an unclassified area of a DLA warehouse and not properly tracked. Quarterly inventory checks over the past 18 months did not show the nose cones were missing.
A DLA spokesman did not respond to questions about the incident. A spokeswoman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan's principal representative office in the United States, declined to comment.
Missile defense experts said the United States may have violated nuclear nonproliferation agreements and U.S. export laws by sending the items to Taiwan. Such treaties and regimes are designed to prevent the transfer of nuclear technologies between countries, and sensitive nuclear missile parts are among the most regulated items.
"This is a case of horrifying mismanagement of the inventory at this location," said Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "But it does seem more like mismanagement rather than a nefarious scheme to get them to Taiwan."
Since 2003, the Air Force had made 139 separate transfers of classified parts between F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and the base in Utah -- mainly to store excess parts in a DLA warehouse -- and only the March 2005 transfer of four nose cones was misplaced, two defense officials said. How that oversight occurred will be at the center of the investigation.
Taiwan received four drum-shaped packages from the United States in August 2006 and placed them, unopened, into storage. Taiwanese officials realized only recently that the packages contained the nose cones when they went looking for the helicopter batteries, according to U.S. defense officials.
In trying to arrange reimbursement for the missing battery packs, U.S. officials determined that the drums contained classified material, quickly secured the items and returned them to the United States.
Henry and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne said the Taiwanese did not appear to tamper with the items, which contain 1960s-era technology, and that the nose cones would not have been dangerous on their own because they work only with U.S. missile technology. Of greater concern to senior U.S. officials is that classified nuclear-related items left U.S. control, reached the hands of a foreign military and went without notice for so long.
U.S. foreign military sales to Taiwan totaled nearly $10 billion in deliveries from 1999 through 2006, second only to Saudi Arabia, which received $13.3 billion, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Sales to Taiwan have included numerous weapons systems -- from helicopters and tanks to air defense missiles and radar systems -- as well as parts and services.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has more than 700 ballistic missiles pointed at the island. Much of China's military buildup appears aimed at achieving air and sea superiority in any conflict with Taiwan.
The United States has long maintained a "one China" policy -- acknowledging that both China and Taiwan say Taiwan is part of China -- while supporting Taiwan with arms sales. In discussions with U.S. officials, the Chinese have argued that one of three communiques governing U.S.-China relations, signed in 1982, requires the United States to reduce arms sales to Taiwan.
But President Ronald Reagan, who signed the communique, at the same time secretly signed a one-page memo stating that the communique restricted U.S. arms sales only if the balance of power between Taiwan and China was preserved.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said the nose-cone incident underscores how Washington has "too many nuclear weapons with too little control over them." He said he worries that the incident will raise Chinese suspicions that Taiwan is restarting its nuclear program -- it does not now have nuclear capabilities -- and could spur China to assume a more aggressive stance.
"Imagine how we would feel if the Russians accidentally shipped warhead fuses to Tehran," Cirincione said. "We'd be going nuts right now. It would be hard for them to convince us that it was an accident."
The chief U.S. envoy at North Korean nuclear disarmament talks says back-channel diplomatic discussions with North Korean officials could break an impasse in negotiations.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill did not provide details Tuesday on how the United States might persuade North Korea to hand over a promised declaration of all its nuclear efforts that had been due at the end of last year; nor did he provide a time frame.
But Hill told an audience at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday that talks between U.S. and North Korean officials continue through diplomatic channels in New York, where the North has a U.N. delegation.
"Some of those discussions, some of the specific things that we've been talking about, I think, could lead to a resolution of this," Hill said.
"It's my view, and this is really a guess, that if the six-party talks fail, it will not be for a lack of a declaration. We will get through this phase," he added, referring to the North's promise to provide negotiators a list of its nuclear efforts.
The problem, Hill said, will be the next phase called for in the six-nation nuclear deal, where the North must abandon and turn over the nuclear material it already has produced. "This will be a big challenge," he said.
He acknowledged that there are questions about whether disarmament could happen before President Bush leaves office in January. "I cannot predict the future on these things, except to say we've got to get moving in the next few weeks, because I think time is really wasting," Hill said.
Six-nation nuclear talks are deadlocked over whether North Korea has given a full declaration of its nuclear programs under a disarmament-for-aid deal. The North says it gave the U.S. a nuclear list last year. The United States insists North Korea has not produced a "complete and correct" declaration that deals with U.S. claims of a secret uranium enrichment program and past nuclear proliferation.
If the North should give up its nuclear weapons and rejoin the international nonproliferation treaty, Hill said, South Korea, Russia, Japan, China and the United States are prepared to offer a host of concessions.
Besides full North Korean-U.S. diplomatic relations, Hill said, the United States and others "would be prepared to discuss with them their desire for a civil nuclear program."
"What North Korea needs to decide is: Does it want to keep its aspirations for nuclear weapons in lieu of all these other elements?" Hill said.
North Korea is eager for energy sources and long has coveted a light-water nuclear reactor, which cannot be used easily to make radioactive materials for weapons. The United States and the other countries in the arms talks have agreed to discuss providing the North with the reactors at an appropriate time.
Algeria and China have signed two cooperation accords on civilian nuclear power, Algerian government newspaper El Moudjahid reported on Tuesday.
One accord is between the two governments on developing peaceful nuclear power, and the other is between Algeria's Energy and Mines Ministry and China's atomic energy authority on training, research and human resources, it reported.
The accords were signed by Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Wei Jianguo and Energy and Mines Minister Secretary-General Faisal Abbas, it said.
Algeria already has similar accords with several countries including Russia, the United States and France.
OPEC oil exporter Algeria, which has big uranium deposits and two nuclear research reactors, is looking at generating nuclear energy and could start building a power plant within the next 10 years, its energy minister Chakib Khelil said last year.
Any construction of a power plant would be years away because Algeria does not have a law governing nuclear energy, needs to train people and must select a location away from populated and earthquake-prone areas, he said.
Egypt and Russia have signed a deal clearing the way for Russian involvement in building up Egypt's nuclear power industry.
Agreement was reached during talks in Moscow between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and President Vladimir Putin.
Russia will now be able to bid to build the first of four atomic power stations Egypt plans.
The first reactor, on the Mediterranean coast, will be constructed at a cost of more than $1.5bn (ï¿½750m).
President Mubarak told reporters: "Egypt, in co-operation with its international partners and the International Atomic Energy Agency, is going to develop this sector, including through the agreement we have just signed."
Mr Mubarak was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the agreement had come after "difficult" negotiations.
Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev said he was looking forward to a "productive partnership" in nuclear energy co-operation.
Russia is already building nuclear reactors in China, India and Iran. An Iranian plant at Bushehr is reported to be close to completion.
The deal was signed at Mr Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow by the head of Russia's Rosatom nuclear energy agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, and Egyptian Energy Minister Hassan Younis.
Correspondents say Russian leaders have been pressing hard for nuclear power plant contracts as the Kremlin seeks to retain high-technology expertise.
The talks between Mr Putin and Mr Mubarak also covered the possibility of Moscow hosting a Middle East peace conference.
"Taking into account growing Israeli-Palestinian tensions, we believe there is a need for a mediatory role from Egypt and Russia", Mr Putin said.
But he stressed that any Moscow meeting should be a conference in its own right rather than simply a follow-on from the Middle East talks which began in Annapolis in the US last year.
Russia is a member of what is known as the "quartet" of Middle East negotiators alongside the US, the United Nations and the European Union.
Correspondents say the Kremlin is anxious to play more of a mediation role in the Middle East and regain some of the influence lost since the end of the Cold War.
3. US, Bahrain Sign Deal on Nuclear Energy Cooperation: US
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The United States and Bahrain signed a deal Monday on peaceful nuclear energy cooperation, holding it up as a model for the Middle East that contrasts with Iran's disputed atomic program.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) on nuclear energy cooperation was signed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Bahraini counterpart Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa during a ceremony at the State Department.
The two top diplomats shook hands without delivering any remarks to journalists.
The State Department said the MOU is a "tangible expression of the United States' desire to cooperate with states in the Middle East, and elsewhere, that want to develop peaceful nuclear power in a manner consistent with the highest standards of safety, security and nonproliferation."
In so doing, they will "serve as models for the responsible pursuit of the benefits of nuclear technology," the department said in a statement. "This MOU reflects Bahrain's commitment to serve as a model in the region."
It pointed out that "Bahrain affirmed its intention to forgo sensitive fuel cycle technologies and rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel," saying its approach "stands in direct contrast to Iran's nuclear activities."
It said US President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin stressed such an approach in the Joint Declaration on Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation that they issued on July 3 last year.
The UN Security Council this month adopted a third resolution threatening tougher sanctions against Iran for its repeated refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program which Washington fears will be used to build an atomic bomb.
Tehran insists its program is peaceful.
Amid concerns over Iran's nuclear aims and regional clout, Bahrain and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members decided in December 2006 to develop a joint nuclear technology program for peaceful uses.
The five other members of the pro-Western (GCC) are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
To further demonstrate Bahrain's commitment to ensure "that sensitive nuclear-related materials stay out of the hands of the most dangerous individuals," Sheikh Khalid handed Rice a diplomatic note endorsing the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), the State Department said.
It said Bahrain is the 67th nation to join the GICNT -- launched in June 2006 by Bush and Putin to reinforce control of nuclear facilities and materials in order to prevent terrorist groups from accessing them.
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