1. Iran Says No 'Technical Problems' in Nuclear Programme
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Iran denied Friday that it faced any "technical problems" in expanding its controversial nuclear programme, which the West fears could be diverted towards weapons development.
"There are no technical problems regarding the development of centrifuges," deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Mohammad Saeedi told the state IRNA news agency.
On Tuesday Iran announced it had started to install thousands of new centrifuges to enrich uranium at its main nuclear plant in Natanz, in defiance of international demands that it halt enrichment.
But diplomats say Iran has experienced difficulties in utilising its existing centrifuges to full capacity.
Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has said it was "natural in this kind of industry that there are ups and downs once in a while."
Uranium enrichment lies at the core of the standoff over Iran's nuclear programme, as the process, which makes nuclear fuel, could be used to make atom bombs.
As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran insists it has a right to enrichment to make nuclear fuel to meet growing energy needs of its population and vehemently denies allegations of seeking a bomb.
Tehran's refusal to suspend enrichment has been punished with three sets of UN Security Council sanctions and US pressure on its banking system.
But Tehran has rejected the UN Security Council resolutions as "political and illegal" and vowed to press on with its nuclear programme in the face of pressure.
Iran will inaugurate a new uranium ore processing plant in less than a year in Ardakan, central Iran, a top nuclear official said Wednesday.
The nuclear facility will complete one of the early stages necessary for uranium enrichment _ a process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead. Iran is looking to dramatically expand its enrichment program despite U.N. demands that it stop.
Hossein Faghihian, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in charge of nuclear fuel, said the Ardakan Yellowcake Production Plant would open before the end of the current Iranian calendar year, which is March 20, 2009.
The plant will process ore extracted from uranium mines into uranium ore concentrate, known as yellowcake.
In the next stage, at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, central Iran, the yellowcake is processed into uranium hexaflouride, a gas that is the feedstock for enriching uranium. The gas is taken to the Uranium Enrichment Plant in Natanz, where it is injected into centrifuges for enrichment.
Iran announced Tuesday that it had begun installing 6,000 new centrifuges for enrichment, a move that would triple its number of centrifuges.
Faghihian said the new plant at Ardakan is to have a capacity to produce 70 tons of yellowcake a year.
Iran has a smaller ore concentrate plant near the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, which opened in 2006. Authorities have not said how much ore the Bandar Abbas plant can produce, though it is believed to be less than the planned new facility.
"With the inauguration of the facility, the country's needs for uranium ore concentrate will be met," the state television's Web site quoted Faghihian as saying Wednesday.
Uranium enriched to low grades is used for fuel in nuclear reactors, but further enrichment makes it suitable for atomic bombs.
The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran has denied the accusation. It says its nuclear program is geared solely toward generating electricity with reactors.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
Faghihian said Iran has so far pumped out about 360 tons of the gas it needs for uranium enrichment and keeps the materials at the Isfahan facility.
Iran has discovered at least three other uranium reserves in central parts of the country. The largest discovered reserve is at its Saghand Uranium Mine in central Iran, not far from the Ardakan facility.
Faghihian said officials were preparing a comprehensive map of Iran's uranium reserves to pave the way for thorough exploitation.
The United States is prepared to lift two key economic sanctions against North Korea under a tentative deal reached with that country this week, which requires Pyongyang to acknowledge U.S. concerns and evidence about a range of nuclear activities, U.S. and Asian diplomats said yesterday.
The agreement also requires North Korea to finish disabling its main nuclear facility and provide a full accounting of its stockpile of plutonium. But, in a key shift, the two sides agreed to sidestep a dispute over how much detail North Korea must provide about any past uranium enrichment-related activities and its involvement in a mysterious Syrian facility bombed by Israel last September.
North Korea had balked at confirming the Bush administration's allegations, stalling for months a process designed to eliminate its nuclear programs. But after negotiations this week in Singapore and last month in Geneva, the United States and North Korea agreed that Pyongyang must "acknowledge" the allegations without precisely admitting them publicly.
That paves the way, diplomats said, for President Bush to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and to exempt it from the Trading With the Enemy Act.
U.S. officials have concluded it is more important to persuade North Korea to surrender its weapons-grade plutonium -- enough for perhaps half a dozen weapons -- than for the process to collapse over the impasse, according to Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator.
"North Korea has difficulty saying things publicly," Hill said. Indeed, the still-secret text of the new agreement has elements similar to the Shanghai Communique issued by China and United States in 1972 during President Richard Nixon's historic visit, in which the two sides offered their own interpretations of key disputes.
Hill said that resolving questions about Pyongyang's interest in uranium enrichment remain important, but that plutonium poses an immediate proliferation risk.
"We are trying to focus on the plutonium as we try to resolve our suspicions on uranium enrichment," Hill said. Recalling Willie Sutton's line that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is," Hill said: "That's where the bombs are. We don't have suspicions about plutonium; we have cold, hard facts about plutonium."
North Korea acquired much of its plutonium after the 2002 collapse of a Clinton administration agreement barring operation of a plutonium-producing reactor. Bush accused North Korea of cheating on the deal, citing evidence that Pyongyang had a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium offer different routes to building nuclear weapons.
Some North Korea experts are skeptical Pyongyang will ever give up its recently acquired plutonium.
Diplomats say Japan is upset that North Korea may be removed from the terrorism list before questions are resolved about North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens. In its 2004 report, the State Department said that the kidnapping issue was a factor in North Korea's inclusion on the list, but in recent months the administration has steadily unlinked the two issues.
North Korea is one of five countries on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which makes it subject to severe U.S. export controls, particularly of dual-use technology and military equipment. Those controls prohibit much foreign aid and obligate the United States to oppose financial assistance to the country from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Under the agreement, Pyongyang would also be freed from financial sanctions imposed by the Trading With the Enemy Act, a 1917 law that allows for a near-total economic boycott of countries at war with the United States.
Hill previously has said U.S. officials concluded that thousands of aluminum tubes acquired by North Korea in 2002 -- which prompted the intelligence finding that Pyongyang was building a large-scale uranium-enrichment program -- were not currently being used to create fissile material.
North Korea allowed U.S. diplomats to visit a missile factory that used the tubes and to carry samples home, but government scientists later discovered traces of enriched uranium on the aluminum samples, officials said.
U.S. officials said further negotiations are needed, and an Asian diplomat said those will involve the amount of plutonium that North Korea plans to declare. Last year, North Korea said that it possessed about 30 kilograms of plutonium, much less than U.S. intelligence had estimated.
"The ball is on the North Korean side," the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We need to have a clear explanation for the amount, and it has to be verified."
The United States is preparing about 500,000 tons of food aid to assist North Korea with a devastating grain crisis, but Hill said that is unrelated to the nuclear discussions.
With the indigenous atomic power programme starving for fuel and the Indo-US nuclear deal on the backburner, the Government is exploring the option of sourcing uranium from non-NSG countries.
Namibia, where India has initiated talks for exploring a long-term relationship in uranium supply, and Niger, are on the radar.
According to Government sources, Indiaï¿½s request for sourcing uranium has been conveyed to the Namibian Prime Minister, Mr Nahas Angula. Progress on the matter is being reviewed at the highest level.
The Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Mr Anil Kakodkar, has been updated on the response from the African nation, sources said.
India is currently restricted from sourcing uranium from the 45-member NSG nations, which control global nuclear commerce, as it is outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Namibia, Niger and Uzbekistan are the three major non-NSG countries producing sizeable amounts of uranium.
A stumbling block in Indiaï¿½s bid, however, could be that both countries are signatories to the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, which aims to establish a nuke-free zone in Africa.
The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal seeks to bring in a special exemption for India from the NSG precondition, but progress on the pact has been slow in light of domestic opposition from the Governmentï¿½s Left allies to it, because of which India has also been unable to finalise country-specific safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The NSG has also yet to formally consider a possible exemption for India from NSGï¿½s restrictive rules.
According to experts, once the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (the Treaty of Pelindaba) comes into force, there is the possibility of these member-nations seeking full-scope safeguards for any transfer of nuclear material to non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states, including India.
Nuclear energy contributes less than three per cent of the countryï¿½s installed generation capacity. India is not well endowed with uranium ore and the short supply of the fuel is becoming the stumbling block for the rapid expansion of nuclear power in India.
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