1. North Korea still holds plutonium card: analysts
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North Korea's threat to restart its plant that makes arms-grade plutonium is feasible, although the task would be a daunting one, analysts said on Wednesday.
On Tuesday the communist state said that because the United States had not kept to its side of a disarmament-for-aid deal it would stop disabling a Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear complex and was considering getting back into the plutonium business.
Moscow added its voice to the western criticism on Wednesday, with a Foreign Ministry statement expressing "concern and disappointment" at the North Korean plans.
"The North Koreans have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. They understand the technical aspects of it," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "They have the human resources, which is the most important."
Engineers, working since late last year and mostly overseen by U.S. experts, have almost completed disabling the Yongbyon nuclear plant. The aim is to make it impossible to resume operations for at least a year.
"The North Koreans' thinking may be: 'We can rebuild it. We can make it better and we have enough nuclear weapons to deter anyone for the one to three years it might take to get this back up and running'," Pinkston said.
The disablement work was done at three facilities -- a plant that produces nuclear fuel, the North's sole operating reactor and a plant that turns spent fuel into plutonium.
The only major remaining step was the discharging of irradiated fuel rods from the reactor. The rods are still in North Korea and contain enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, proliferation experts said.
They said the North, which conducted its only nuclear test two years ago, has already produced enough plutonium for about six to eight bombs.
EXPLOITING A WEAKNESS
The isolated North's latest announcement confirms the belief of some analysts that its communist leaders have no intention of giving up nuclear weapons, a diplomatic trump card that has repeatedly won them concessions in the past.
"North Korea is biding its time, thinking there is no rush for denuclearization," said Lee Sang-hyun, director of the security studies program at South Korea's Sejong Institute.
North Korea was angered that the United States has not dropped it from a terrorism blacklist, something Washington said it would do only after Pyongyang accepted inspectors to verify details of its nuclear inventory.
Once removed from its pariah status, experts estimate the North could see its broken economy grow with increased trade and investment.
Bruce Klingner, an Asian affairs expert with the Heritage Foundation, said the North may have seen the Bush administration as eager to make a deal before leaving office.
He added that during the prolonged talks the North has also seen Washington back down when it said it would not compromise.
"What this has meant is the U.S. agreeing to the North Korean demands and kicking the can down the road on any contentious issues," Klingner said by telephone from Washington.
The sputtering talks that started about five years ago are likely to continue because regional powers see them as the best diplomatic method for engaging North Korea, although Pyongyang's recent announcement slammed the brakes on progress for now.
"Just when we thought the six-party talks where dead ... they keep coming back to life," Klingner said of the talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy says France and Jordan have signed an accord on civilian nuclear cooperation.
Sarkozy's office says the deal will "reinforce and institutionalize" nuclear cooperation between the two countries.
In a parallel agreement, French nuclear giant Areva says it has signed a uranium mining deal with Jordan's Atomic Energy Commission.
The announcements coincided with talks in Paris Wednesday between Sarkozy and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Sarkozy has said France would support Muslim nations seeking civilian nuclear technologies. Under Sarkozy, France has signed similar nuclear accords with Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Slovak power firm Slovenske Elektrarne (SE) has launched a tender to find a builder to finish two new blocks at the Mochovce nuclear power plant, it said in the Official Journal of the European Union on Monday.
The power generator, managed by Italian utility and 66 percent shareholder Enel (ENEI.MI: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), said bidders should submit letters of interest by Sept 18. It said it expected final bids would be due on Dec 8.
Construction works at Mochovce's third and fourth blocks are expected to start on April 1, 2009 and finish by the end of June 2011.
Work on the blocs originally began in 1987, but stopped in 1992. The construction tender will not include techincal aspects of the blocks, but will entail finishing buildings, digging water canals, and handling the cooling and air conditioning.
Prime Minister Robert Fico said this month his cabinet was worried Slovenske Elektrarne (SE) may be late in finishing Mochovce, the newer of Slovakia's two nuclear power plants, and that a delay could damage the economy [ID:nLC484372].
Fico stepped up pressure on utilities over energy costs last week -- he has run a campaign to prevent them from raising prices -- and warned their western owners he may expropriate their property if they overcharged customers [ID:nLI593363].
Fico asked SE to present a detailed timetable of work on the two 440 MW blocks at Mochovce. The work, which will also include the provision of reactors and other techincal aspects, should be completed in 2012-2013 at a cost of 1.6 billion euros.
SE Chief Executive Paolo Ruzzini said in August the company was making every effort so Mochovce would be completed in 2012 and 2013 as planned.
Slovakia depends heavily on nuclear energy. Its two plants produced 57 percent of its electricity in 2007.
The small central European country has shut down one block and will have to close another unit at the older, Soviet-style nuclear power plant at Jaslovske Bohunice, which was a condition in the Bratislava's accession to the European Union.
1. Georgia conflict imperils big-power action on Iran
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The acrimony between Russia and the West stirred by the Georgia conflict complicates any effort to tighten U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
Yet with the geopolitical and economic aftershocks of the crisis rumbling on, it may be too early for Tehran to assume it is off the hook -- as some Iranian newspapers have suggested.
The United States and its European allies will clearly find it trickier to forge a consensus with a truculent Russia and a wary China on harsher sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear drive.
"If we are moving in the direction of a new Cold War, it will be harder to find a joint solution to problems ... such as the nuclear conflict with Iran," said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
He dismissed suggestions that this might prompt the United States to opt for unilateral action against Iran.
"Of course cooperation on the Iran issue could fall victim to the current confrontation between the United States and Russia, but this does not have to be the case," he said.
"In past months, the U.S. has moved away from unilateralism on this question and moved towards more multilateralism."
Russia, one of five veto-holding nations on the United Nations Security Council, has backed three previous sanctions measures against Iran, but only after watering them down.
The sanctions have failed to dissuade Iran from pressing ahead with a nuclear program it says aims only to generate electricity, not to make atomic bombs as the West charges.
The Iran News daily said this week the Georgian crisis had removed Iran from world headlines, while Russia's invasion of its neighbor had raised doubts about Western accusations that the Islamic Republic was the gravest threat to global security.
The English-language newspaper discerned clear benefits for Iran in Russia's fierce quarrel with the West over Georgia.
"It makes the enforcement of already ratified sanctions against Tehran more challenging ... and significantly reduces the chances of consensus ... for the imposition of a fourth round of punitive sanctions against our nation."
COOPERATION SURE TO SUFFER
That seems hard to contest, even for Iran's nuclear critics.
"The downward spiral in relations between Russia and the West will make it harder to work together on anything, and Iran policy heads the list of areas that are going to suffer," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"Finding consensus on additional Security Council sanctions was hard to begin with," he said, adding that any new resolution might just focus on better implementation of existing ones.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama laid out a much more ambitious agenda on Monday, when he said the world must "tighten the screws diplomatically" with sanctions on Iran.
"We've got to do that before Israel feels like its back is to the wall," he said, when asked if Israel had a green light to strike Iran in the absence of more world pressure on Tehran.
The United States is pressing for further sanctions, giving the priority for now to diplomatic over military action.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said this month that the United States "does not see an action against Iran as the right thing to do at the moment" but shared the Jewish state's view that "no option should be removed from the table".
The Georgia crisis has not brought a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear installations any closer, Perthes said. "It will not become easier to lead a third war in the Middle East just because one now also faces a conflict with Russia."
A senior European diplomat said cooperation may be bumpier, but argued that Russia and the United States still share the strategic goal of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.
"It's no use denying there's a huge amount of tension in the relationship following the Georgia intervention, but there will be a lot of determination to keep the Iran show on the road."
Other diplomats voiced skepticism on the prospects for this.
"Everyone believes Russia will no longer join U.S. pressure on Iran," said a Vienna-based diplomat versed in the Iran issue, describing Russian leaders as furious over Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's "adventure encouraged by the Americans".
Georgia and Russia fought a brief war over South Ossetia this month after Georgian troops tried to retake the breakaway region. A Russian counter-attack pushed inside Georgia.
Moscow's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian region, has fuelled Western wrath.
Paul Rivlin, an analyst at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Centre, said Washington's failure to help its Georgian ally had highlighted an erosion in U.S. strategic power relative to Russia, China and even Iran since the 2003 war on Iraq.
"Hostility to the war at home, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world has had negative effects on the U.S. image and ability to galvanize the international community on any issue, be it the Iranian threat or even support for Georgia," he wrote in a recent paper.
"Russia now has fewer reasons to cooperate with Washington regarding Iran's nuclear program," Rivlin added.
1. India nuke deal is prime focus of US nuclear policy: Rice
Press Trust of India
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As India and the US work overtime to get a clean NSG waiver, the Bush Administration said the Indo-US atomic deal was currently the "principal focus" of its nuclear policy and given a priority over a similar pact with Russia. Asked whether developments in Georgia will affect the US-Russia civilian nuclear deal, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the present focus of America's nuclear commerce policy was the India deal and not the one with Russia. "Our principal focus right now has been on the India civil nuclear deal, having worked through the IAEA, now working through the NSG, and still trying to get into a position to make the appropriate presidential determinations in early September. So that's our focus right now on the civil nuclear side," Rice told reporters on her way to Tel Aviv. Rice's comments came even as Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon discussed a strategy with senior US officials in Washington to address reservations expressed by some countries at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) over the draft waiver that is required to push the Indso-US nuke deal forward. Echoing Rice's sentiments, White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said the current focus of the administration was to see the India-US deal through. The fate of the deal rests with the 45-member NSG which is due to meet for the second time in two weeks on September 6. "I think we have another nuclear agreement in the queue ahead of that (Russian deal), that we're really focussed on right now, and that's the India civil nuclear agreement. And that's generating a lot of work and time and energy on our part to get that done," Fratto said. "We were able to work that through the IAEA and now working with the NSG, and trying to get that through NSG, and eventually for presentation to our Congress," Fratto added. The Deputy Press Secretary was asked whether America intends to pull out of the US-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, given Russia's military action in Georgia, or the deal would be completed by the end of the year.
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