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Nuclear News - 1/27/2009
PGS Nuclear News, January 27, 2009
Compiled By: Helene Picart

A.  Iran
    1. U.S. wants direct talks with Iran on atom work: envoy, Louis Charbonneau , Reuters (1/26/2009)
    2. Uranium nations urged not to sell to Iran, Mark Trevelyan, Reuters (1/24/2009)
B.  Nuclear Cooperation
    1. German Ex-Chancellor Schroeder to Travel to Iran in February, Rainer Buergin, Bloomberg (1/26/2009)
    2. Kazakhstan and India sign nuclear cooperation accord, World Nuclear News (1/26/2009)
    3. NATO warns of Iran nuclear domino, says back Obama, David Brunnstrom, Reuters (1/26/2009)
    4. Hillary, Tzipi to stop Iran enrichment, PressTV (1/23/2009)
    5. India's L&T to partner Canada co for nuclear power, Prashant Mehra, Reuters (1/22/2009)
    1. NKorea's Kim wants nuclear-free region: Chinese media, Agence France-Presse (1/23/2009)
D.  Russia-Iran
    1. Bushehr Nuclear Plant's fuel pool strength test begins, Zawya (1/26/2009)
E.  Nuclear Energy
    1. British Energy juggles reactor restarts, Daniel Fineren and Vera Eckert, Reuters (1/26/2009)
    2. Energy chief favors nuke plant revival, Amy R. Remo, Philippine Daily Inquirer (1/24/2009)
    3. Hokkaido Elec to start testing new Tomari nuke unit, James Topham, Reuters (1/23/2009)
    4. Slovakia Gives up on Restarting Nuclear Reactor, Sofia News Agency (1/23/2009)
    5. Turkey says no decision to cancel nuclear tender, Tolgahan Ozkan, Reuters (1/23/2009)
F.  Pakistan
    1. Ingredients for conflict, Hugh Naylor, The National (1/17/2009)
G.  Links of Interest
    1. UAE nuclear test for Obama's America, Edmund O'Sullivan, Middle East Business Intelligence (1/25/2009)
    2. Obama Urged to Keep Pledge to Ratify Nuclear Treaty, Jonathan Tirone, Bloomberg (1/23/2009)
    3. Video: Obama could see more cooperation with Russia, Martin Savidge and Angela Stent, World Focus

A.  Iran

U.S. wants direct talks with Iran on atom work: envoy
Louis Charbonneau
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The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Monday the new administration would make Iran's nuclear program a top diplomatic priority and would pursue direct talks with Tehran.

"We remain deeply concerned about the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the region, indeed to the United States and to the entire international community," Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after 45 minutes of closed-door discussions with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"We look forward to engaging in vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran," she said.

The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush had been pushing last year for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

But the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany -- often referred to as the "P5+1" -- had put discussions on next steps with Iran on hold until the administration of Barack Obama was in office, council diplomats have said.

The United States, European Union and other Western powers suspect Tehran is amassing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electrify and refuses to freeze a program that it says is its sovereign right to have.

In her first encounter with reporters at the United Nations, Rice gave no specifics about what lay ahead for Iran.

She said Washington would continue its "collaboration and partnership with the P5+1 and we will look at what is necessary and appropriate with respect to maintaining pressure toward that goal of ending Iran's nuclear program.

"Dialogue and diplomacy must go hand-in-hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the (U.N.) Security Council and its continued refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase," Rice said.

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Uranium nations urged not to sell to Iran
Mark Trevelyan
(for personal use only)

Western powers believe Iran is running short of raw uranium for its nuclear program and are urging producer nations not to sell to Tehran, The Times reported Saturday.

The newspaper said Britain's Foreign Office late last year ordered its diplomats in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Brazil -- all major uranium producers -- to lobby their governments on the issue.

"Countries including Britain, the U.S., France and Germany have started intensive diplomatic efforts to dissuade major uranium producers from selling to Iran," the newspaper said.

The Western governments accuse Tehran of trying to acquire nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear energy program. Iran denies the accusation and says it only wants nuclear power in order to generate electricity.

The enriched uranium required for use in nuclear reactors or weapons is produced in centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) at high speeds. The UF6 is derived in a chemical reaction from "yellow cake," a concentrate obtained from mined uranium ore.

The vice president of Kazakhstan's state atomic company told Reuters in an interview in November that the former Soviet republic planned to increase uranium production to nearly 12,000 tonnes this year from around 8,600 tonnes in 2008.

The World Nuclear Association lists the top 10 uranium mining nations in 2007 as Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan, the United States, Ukraine and China. Brazil was 13th.

The Times said the Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting and smuggling are rife, was another potential source of supply that troubles Western nations and the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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B.  Nuclear Cooperation

German Ex-Chancellor Schroeder to Travel to Iran in February
Rainer Buergin
(for personal use only)

Gerhard Schroeder, Germany’s former chancellor, will travel to Iran in February to help raise pressure on the oil-producing country to abandon its nuclear program, the German foreign ministry said today.

“The nuclear dossier will play an important role” in Schroeder’s visit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said at a regular government press conference in Berlin. Schroeder will “amplify and underline” the government’s position on Iran’s nuclear program.

German companies doing business with Iran should show “voluntary restraint” even in business areas that aren’t covered by sanctions, deputy government spokesman Thomas Steg told the press conference.

Credit guarantees for exports to Iran are being given “very restrictively” and the volume of guarantees is shrinking, said Economy Ministry spokeswoman Beatrix Brodkorb.

European countries including Germany have taken a twin- track approach to Iran, offering closer economic ties while pursuing United Nations sanctions against its nuclear program. Pressure on Iran mounts as President Barack Obama considers restoring U.S. ties with Iran.

Steg said export credit guarantees haven’t been suspended altogether and are still being given on a case-by-case basis for “smaller” amounts. No final decision has been taken on whether guarantees will be tightened further, he said.

Germany, where exports to Iran rose last year, is trying to aid an eventual offer of talks between Obama’s administration and the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Handelsblatt newspaper reported today without being more specific.

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Kazakhstan and India sign nuclear cooperation accord
World Nuclear News
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Kazakhstan will provide India with much-needed uranium to fuel its nuclear power plants under an agreement on cooperation in civil nuclear energy signed by the two countries.

During a four-day visit to India by Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed in New Delhi on 24 January between KazAtomProm and Nuclear Power Corp of India Ltd (NPCIL). The MoU was signed by Moukhtar Dzhakishev, president of KazAtomProm, and Sreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of NPCIL.

In a statement, KazAtomProm said: "The signed MoU reflects the interest of the two companies in joint cooperation on a wide variety of nuclear energy subjects, including mining for natural uranium, deliveries of Kazakh natural uranium products for Indian nuclear industry, and personnel training."

It added, "The document also states KazAtomProm's expressed interest in working towards a feasibility study on the subject of nuclear power projects in Kazakhstan on the basis of Indian pressurized heavy water reactor (PHWR) designs."

Speaking of the agreement, Dzhakishev said that "the signing of this mutually beneficial memorandum comes at an important time and is in line with the countries' intentions to expand the scope of business and political cooperation."

Jain commented, "The memorandum is a result of mutual commitment to begin thorough discussions on long-term strategic relationship.

"India has been largely excluded from trade in nuclear plant or materials for over 30 years because of its status outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). This has not stopped it from developing a nuclear power programme of its own. With 17 nuclear reactors in operation, and six under construction, it plans to have 20,000 MWe of nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050. However, a lack of indigenous uranium reserves, as well as its isolation from nuclear industry trade, has hampered the country's nuclear energy sector.

After India finalised a wide-ranging safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) decided in September 2008 to permit nuclear plant or materials to be transferred to India. Since then, several cooperation agreements with India have been signed, including by France, the USA, Russia and Canada.

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NATO warns of Iran nuclear domino, says back Obama
David Brunnstrom
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NATO urged its members on Monday to do more to help new U.S. President Barack Obama tackle the growing threats of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and failed states.

Alliance Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer highlighted nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, warning that the latter was threatening to provoke "a nuclear domino effect" in the Middle East.

"The problems we face today have not magically gone away," he said in a speech to a Brussels think-tank, stressing the need for greater Euro-Atlantic cooperation under the new U.S. administration.

"The world is not suddenly more peaceful," he said.

"International terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the growing numbers of failing states are not just the obsession of a few," he said.

De Hoop Scheffer said urgent attention needed to be paid to South Asia and said an victory for extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan would be "a disaster for international security".

"The nuclear proliferation regime is eroding before us," he added. "North Korea is challenging the balance of power in Asia and Iran is threatening to provoke a nuclear domino effect in the Middle East."

In Afghanistan, a regional approach was needed, he said, with discussions involving all regional players -- Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and also Iran.
Referring to U.S. plans to increase troops numbers in Afghanistan, De Hoop Scheffer said Europe had to do its bit.

"I cannot accept that the U.S. has to do all the heavy lifting...Europe too has to step up -- with more forces and when that is not forthcoming, more on the civilian side," he said.


De Hoop Scheffer said that when Washington called on Europe for help, the Europeans had to respond in a united way -- with the resources to match. It could not leave it to Obama to make all the running and offer all the concessions.

"If the Europeans expect that the United States will close Guantanamo, sign up to climate change treaties, accept EU leadership on key issues, but provide nothing more in return, for example in Afghanistan, than encouragement -- they should think again. It simply won't work like that."

De Hoop Scheffer reiterated NATO calls for European countries to drop restrictions on use of troops in combat, and for better coordination of the military and development efforts.

He also called for a stepped up focus on Central Asia and the Caucasus region, citing political, security and energy issues. The alliance should consider its role in ensuring security of energy supply "much more seriously", he said.

Despite times of economic hardship, Europe needed to increase its security capabilities to make it a more effective partner of the United States.

"As America remains prepared to lead, it will not be able to lead alone. Europe should be both willing and able to be a partner that the new American administration is looking for."

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Hillary, Tzipi to stop Iran enrichment
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US secretary of state and Israel's foreign minister have reportedly reached an agreement to work together in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

Israel's daily Haaretz said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the deal during a phone conversation on Thursday.

The report added that they also agreed to take joint measures to halt Iran's uranium enrichment program. Clinton officially gained the control of the US State Department on Thursday.

The US, Israel and their European allies accuse Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory Iran of developing a nuclear program for military purposes. Tehran says it only seeks civilian applications of the technology.

Last week, Clinton said that the Obama administration would pursue 'an attitude toward engagement (with Iran) that might bear fruit'.

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also said, in a Thursday letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Berlin is ready to aid the Obama administration in resolving issues such as the Iranian nuclear standoff.

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India's L&T to partner Canada co for nuclear power
Prashant Mehra
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India's Larsen & Toubro (LART.BO) said on Thursday it would partner Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd for the marketing and manufacture of 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactors, its second such tie up in a week.

The two firms plan to develop a competitive cost model of the Canadian firm's ACR 1000 model, a pressurised heavy water reactor.

"L&T and AECL agree to begin discussions to develop nuclear power plants in India and utilise collective expertise of the parties in global markets," L&T said in a statement.

The two companies did not disclose details of any investments in the venture.

Last week, L&T, India's top construction and engineering firm, said it would work with Westinghouse Electric, a unit of Japan's Toshiba (6502.T) to build 1,000 MW nuclear reactors, hoping to tap Indian orders for power projects.

India signed a civilian nuclear co-operation agreement with the United States late last year and global nuclear power firms are keen to partner Indian firms expecting large orders from the power deficient nation.

Private firms are currently allowed to participate in the nuclear power sector only as a minority partner with state-run Nuclear Power Corp.

Diversified L&T, which has been riding a building boom in India over then past few years, has seen growth slow in the last few months tracking a faltering economy hit by the global financial crisis and tight liquidity at home.

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NKorea's Kim wants nuclear-free region: Chinese media
Agence France-Presse
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il said on Friday he wanted a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, declaring his willingness to work with China to push forward the six-party process, Chinese state media reported.

"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and hopes to live in peace with all other sides," Kim was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.

"We don't want to see tension emerge in the situation on the peninsula, and we are willing to strengthen coordination and cooperation with China and push forward the six-party process without interruption."

Kim made the remark while meeting in Pyongyang with Wang Jiarui, a senior official with China's Communist Party, Xinhua reported on its website.

It was Kim's first known meeting with a senior foreign visitor since his reported stroke in August.

Observers noted the timing of Kim's appearance, in the same week that US President Barack Obama was inaugurated in Washington, perhaps signalling North Korea's hopes of a new chapter vis-a-vis the United States.

China hosts the six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament of North Korea. The talks became bogged down in the final months of George W. Bush's administration over ways to verify the North's declared nuclear activities.

The six nations include the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

During his meeting with Kim, Wang delivered "congratulations and a personal message" from China's President Hu Jintao to mark the Lunar New Year, the North's Korean Central News Agency reported.

It did not disclose the content of the personal message, but Chinese state TV said Wang extended an invitation from Hu for Kim to visit China, which the reclusive North Korean leader reportedly accepted "happily."

"China hopes to strengthen contacts with North Korea and work together to overcome obstructions and promote the continued progress of the six-party talks," Chinese state TV quoted Wang as saying.

The report showed no footage, but two stills of Kim, in his trademark boiler suit, and Wang smiling at each other.

"Relations between the DPRK and China have been important in the past, are important now and will be important in the future," Kim was quoted as saying by Chinese TV.

South Korean analysts said the meeting shows that Kim, who turns 67 next month, has recovered from a stroke which South Korean and US officials say he suffered last summer.

Seoul officials had previously said he was recovering well and remained in charge of his impoverished but nuclear-armed nation.

Seoul's Unification Ministry said the meeting showed that Kim's health appeared to be normal, but some analysts were more circumspect.

Brian Bridges, of Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said it "doesn't really clear up the questions about his underlying state of health."

In recent months the Stalinist nation's media has published dozens of reports and undated photos of the leader inspecting military installations or factories in an apparent attempt to show he is fit and in control.

Some Seoul analysts said the timing of Kim's meeting with Wang, so soon after Obama's inauguration, was significant.

"Wang's visit signals that hectic diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the nuclear issue will be made following the inauguration of the Obama administration," Yang Moo-Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies told AFP.

The North has given conflicting signals on whether it plans to push ahead with denuclearisation after the new administration took office in Washington.

Last Saturday Pyongyang said it may not give up its nuclear weapons even after establishing diplomatic ties with Washington, as long as a US "nuclear threat" remains.

But a New Year policy-setting editorial carried no criticism of the United States. And state media Wednesday reported the Obama inauguration less than a day after the ceremony, more quickly than on previous occasions.

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D.  Russia-Iran

Bushehr Nuclear Plant's fuel pool strength test begins
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Russian contractor for completion of Iran's Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), AtomStroyExport, announced here Monday activities at that plant are proceeding as scheduled, including its fuel pool strength test, which began Monday. According to IRNA correspondent in Moscow, the Russian firm has in a communiqué issued on the matter stressed that this phase is among the most important phases among the facility installment stages.

AtomStroyExport had earlier this month announced it has increased the number of its staff, and particularly technicians, at Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in order to accelerate the process of its completion.

The spokesman of the Russian firm, too, told IRNA that there is currently no problem, nor any obstacle in the way of BNPP's completion and activities are pursued normally, in accordance with the schedules.

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E.  Nuclear Energy

British Energy juggles reactor restarts
Daniel Fineren and Vera Eckert
(for personal use only)

British Energy (BGY.L) restarted three nuclear power reactors from Jan. 24-26, including one closed for repairs since 2007, but stopped one of them again on Monday evening.

The 625-megawatt Heysham 2-8 reactor in northwest England was restarted on Saturday after a maintenance outage that began on Jan. 15 but then taken offline again late on Monday.

"We are carrying out planned repairs," a company spokeswoman said, without saying why the repairs were not done during the maintenance shutdown.

"It's not a major issue," she said.

British Energy's 605-MW Hartlepool 1 reactor in northeast England was restarted on Sunday evening and was producing about 110 MW by 1900 GMT, according to data from National Grid, after being shut for repairs since autumn 2007.

British Energy's Dungeness B22 unit was at 60 MW out of a maximum 555 MW after restarting early on Monday morning.

British Energy said the other three reactors that have been shut for repairs since late 2007 should reopen soon.

"The company expects to return the other reactor at Hartlepool power station and the two reactors at Heysham 1 power station to service in a phased process over the coming weeks," British Energy, which has recently been bought by France's EDF (EDF.PA), said in a statement.

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Energy chief favors nuke plant revival
Amy R. Remo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
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Despite staunch opposition from various groups, Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes welcomes the move to revive the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power plant, particularly in so far as power generation is concerned.

"We welcome this revisiting of the nuclear power option, the study being conducted, and the opening of congressional hearing on this matter," Reyes told reporters in his office recently.

According to Reyes, there is a need to reexamine "our position vis-à-vis the nuclear power option in so far as power generation is concerned because there are two sides in the story."

"On one hand, we anticipate increased demand for electricity so we have to increase supply. Therefore, we have to examine how we can satisfy the demand over the next 20 years, how to provide secure, adequate, quality, affordable power to industry, to residences, and to commerce," Reyes explained.

He noted that over a long period, the use of nuclear power may lead to relatively lower prices.

"So that affords the industries lower power rates and enables them to be more competitive in the market," he said, adding that this may also mean lower rates for the residential sector.

Reyes, however, admitted that the government, if it decides to push through with the revival of the BNPP, has to also contend with the disposal of nuclear wastes, the public concern over the safety of operating a nuclear plant, as well as the supply of the plant's fuel, which is uranium.

It was for these reasons, among others, that militant and environment groups opposed the 630-megawatt BNPP in the 1980s. It would have been the first nuclear power plant in the country. The facility was mothballed since then.

Recently, however, the government has been mulling the revival of the BNPP in the wake of oil price surges in the world market last year and the growing concern over the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels.

In December 2008, the National Power Corp. signed a memorandum of understanding with Korea Electric Power Corp. (Kepco), allowing the South Korean company to carry out studies on the possible revival of the BNPP, which is located in Morong, Bataan.

Reyes said the MOU allows, on a non-exclusive basis and at no cost to the government, Kepco to study, look up, and examine the BNPP to assess the feasibility of rehabilitating the BNPP.

"In that agreement, there'll be an exchange of information, views, [and] experts so this will enable us to accelerate the building of our human resource infrastructure," he said.

Under the MOU, Kepco would also not be given preferential rights to any BNPP-related projects that Napocor may undertake.

Recently, Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco took a group of legislators on a tour of the BNPP facility, as he has been seeking and pushing for the revival and operation of the 22-year-old white elephant with his bill called "Bataan Nuclear Power Plant Commissioning Act of 2008."

Meanwhile, Reyes said the government was also studying whether it would be better to simply rehabilitate the current facility or put up a new one.

"My understanding, based on initial reports, [is that the] structure integrity has remained," he noted. Earlier, Reyes said that the rehabilitation of the BNPP may cost around $800 million.

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Hokkaido Elec to start testing new Tomari nuke unit
James Topham
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Hokkaido Electric Power Co (9509.T) will begin testing a new nuclear generator on Sunday, a major step in bringing the unit online and to cutting fuel purchases for the utility.

Trial operations at the 912-megawatt No.3 nuclear generator at its Tomari plant on Japan's northernmost island are scheduled to start in March, with commercial operations set for December, the power firm said in a statement.

The average nuclear power plant utilisation rate at Japan's 10 nuclear power companies was only 58.0 percent in 2008, hit by the indefinite shutdown of Tokyo Electric Power Co's (9501.T). Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant after an earthquake in July 2007.

Last April, Hokkaido Electric applied for permission to use reprocessed atomic fuel at the No. 3 unit.

Japan's power industry is moving towards a "closed" domestic nuclear fuel cycle where it recycles its own spent fuel and then burns recovered uranium and plutonium as mixed-oxcide (MOX) fuel.

Hokkaido Elec also has two other nuclear generators at the Tomari plant, each with a total capacity of 579 megawatts.

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Slovakia Gives up on Restarting Nuclear Reactor
Sofia News Agency
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After its supplies of Russian natural gas have been restored, Slovakia has given up on its efforts to restart the nuclear reactor at the Jaslovke Bohunice power plant, the BGNES news agency reported Friday citing the Slovak Ministry of Economy.

Slovakia's Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek is quoted as saying that the country no longer had the grounds for turning on the reactor as now its Russian natural gas supplies through the Ukraine had been stabilized.

On January 10, the Slovak government declared the beginning of the technical procedure to restart the Soviet-made reactor as the country was in a severe energy crisis caused by the cutoff of Russian gas because of the Russia-Ukraine pricing dispute.

The stopping of the reactor was one of the conditions placed on Slovakia when it joined the European Union. The power plant that was opened in 1970 did not meet the official EU regulations according to technical experts. The first block was shut down towards the end of 2006, while the second was closed as recently as December 31, 2008.

The European Commission threatened Slovakia with sanctions in case it restarted the Bohunice reactor.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria's Parliament voted Friday morning to authorize the government to conduct talks with the Commission on the potential reboot of Units 3 and 4 of the Kozloduy NPP. The Bulgarian MPs decided that even though the Russian gas supplies were restored, the country should be entitled to turn on the two Soviet-made 440 MW reactors as a compensation for its losses from the gas shortage crisis as well as from the global financial crisis.

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Turkey says no decision to cancel nuclear tender
Tolgahan Ozkan
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Turkey's tender to build its first nuclear power station is continuing and will not be cancelled, Energy Minister Hilmi Guler said on Friday, despite only one bid, from a Russian-Turkish consortium.

Analysts have criticised the tender, part of Turkey's plan to meet growing energy needs, for its lack of competition in constructing the estimated $7.5 billion plant.

The consortium of Russia's Atomstroiexport and Inter Rao (IRAO.MM) and Turkey's Park Teknik revised its bid after initially offering to sell power from the planned nuclear power station at three times the current rate, Guler said previously.

Atomstroiexport had offered to sell power at an average price of $0.2116 per kilowatt hour, Yasar Cakmak, head of state power company Tetas, told a news conference earlier this week.

Analyts have also pointed out that the Russian-based company's construction of the plant undermines Ankara's energy policy of limiting its dependence on Russia, which already provides more than 60 percent of Turkey's gas imports.

Cancellation of the tender however would put Turkey at risk of possibly being unable to meet long-term energy needs. Turkey already experiences nearly chronic shortfalls in energy supplies from its main importers Russia and Iran.

Licences for three nuclear power plants is expected to cover approximately 5 percent of Turkey's power needs.

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F.  Pakistan

Ingredients for conflict
Hugh Naylor
The National
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It is easy to imagine: a disgruntled employee at a nuclear facility, after years of fudging accounting records, spirits away dozens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), selling it to a shadowy and well-financed buyer.

The buyer, a terrorist group with al Qa’eda sympathies, fits the illicitly purchased HEU into a crudely fashioned explosive device, the blueprints of which were obtained online. The finished product is a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb capable of levelling Wall Street, large swathes of Mumbai or any densely populated area.

For years experts have grappled with this sort of nightmare scenario, most notably following the Soviet Union’s collapse when its expansive nuclear arsenal was left vulnerable.

It is difficult to calculate the odds of terrorists obtaining warheads or nuclear materials, or predicting a coup that puts radicals in charge of these weapon. But speculation over where such scenarios could take place is centring on Pakistan.

“Pakistan is the issue today because Pakistan is unstable,” said Kenneth Luongo, the president of Partnership for Global Security, a Washington research organisation, and former adviser on non-proliferation policy to the US secretary of energy during the Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“Russia was the flashpoint 15 years ago because Russia was unstable. Whenever there is an unstable government and nuclear weapons, there is going to be a potential flashpoint.”

When Barack Obama assumes the presidency on Jan 20, he faces a situation in Pakistan rife with violence and ideological struggle.

According to US and British intelligence, al Qa’eda has regrouped in Pakistan and is planning acts of international terrorism. The country’s newly elected civilian leadership is struggling to keep in check the rise of radical religious movements and a new generation of weapons scientists and technicians with uncertain loyalties.

And its military, the ultimate authority over the country’s nuclear arsenal, is strained by the fight against Taliban and al Qa’eda militants near its border with Afghanistan while still proving a credible threat to its arch-enemy, India.

“Now we’re facing a near-war situation in which the army has lost something like 2,000 soldiers fighting fanatics in places like Waziristan,” said Pervez Hoodboy, an active political commentator and chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

“The problem now is one in which a part of the army is colluding with the Taliban, which is one of the reasons that makes this situation so murky. If the army stays together, then the status quo remains. If it starts disintegrating under further attacks by the Taliban or war with India, then we could face a darker scenario.”

Amid the fray, the country is managing an estimated 60 nuclear weapons, an array of declared and undeclared nuclear reactors and weapons facilities and thousands of personnel with sensitive knowledge. Guarding this sprawling infrastructure can be expensive and laborious, requiring a labyrinth of security networks and monitors to keep an eye on those with access to weapons and information.

What Pakistan has done to secure its nuclear programme is essentially unknown, said Charles Ferguson, a nuclear security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a security research organisation based in New York. “We’re getting some information, but the question is, how credible is it?”

One of the certainties, he said, was that some US policymakers feared Pakistan contained the elements for disaster: large areas of territory controlled by militants, an unstable government and a nuclear programme founded on material that could be manipulated by amateurs into a crude atom bomb.

“So not only do we have al Qa’eda forces and other terrorist elements in the region, not only do we have potentially unstable and radical elements inside the government, but we have a nuclear weapons programme that’s mostly based on HEU,” Dr Ferguson said. “And HEU is the best material to use in a relatively simple nuclear weapon called a gun-type device.”

There is no shortage of nightmare scenarios that come to mind.

What happens if radical military officers steal a warhead and threaten to use it on India? Are blueprints for making bomb fuel and a warhead being illicitly sold in a repetition of Pakistan’s famed nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan?

Whether these scenarios transpire largely depends on the military, whose loyalties have increasingly come under scrutiny. Recent reports in The Sunday Times and Pakistani media suggest fissures in the army, most recently in the case of a former Pakistani army official who was killed in November after threatening to expose secret agreements between army officers and the Taliban.

After its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States began fighting militants deep inside Pakistan, launching commando raids from Afghanistan and hellfire missile attacks from unmanned aerial drones.

It also appears to be hedging its bets with Pakistan’s arsenal, boosting aid aimed at securing its nuclear assets but also preparing for the worst.

In 2006, the US government reportedly held war games in which its military intervenes to secure or destroy Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event of major political instability. One of the scenarios, The Washington Post reported in 2007, involved how the US would contend with a rival faction taking power and wielding nuclear weapons “not necessarily to use them but to wield them as a symbol of authority”.

Yet participants in the exercises reportedly concluded there were no “palatable” ways to forcibly secure the weapons. “It’s an unbelievably daunting problem,” a former Pentagon official, who took part in the war games, was quoted as saying.

Since September 11, the United States has also invested about US$100 million (Dh365m) in helping to bolster Islamabad’s nuclear security systems, Mr Luongo said. The assistance has dovetailed with other security features introduced by Pakistan after its first nuclear tests in May 1998, including a more formalised command-and-control structure, personnel reliability systems and accounting safeguards.

“It’s imperfect, just like everybody else’s system is imperfect,” he said. “But I don’t think you can deny that significant steps have been taken and that they [Pakistani authorities] take the issue seriously.”

Still, he and other experts say the US can only go so far in pressuring Pakistan to improve security.

Pakistan is not party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the international regime governing relations between nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons countries. Attempts by the United States and other legal nuclear weapons countries to assist non-signatory nations – the so-called nuclear-armed pariahs: Pakistan, India, Israel – with their weapons programme could violate the agreement.

And, like most other nuclear-armed nations, Pakistani authorities have been reluctant to give outsiders access to their most prized defensive assets, which are seen as the country’s main deterrent to India. They allegedly bristled at the idea of allowing US officials, after September 11, to fit on their warheads American-made permissive action links, or PALs, which act as coded locks that are designed to prevent unauthorised individuals from using them.

The Pakistanis apparently “don’t want to go there; it’s a bridge too far to cross”, Dr Ferguson said. “To put on a PAL, you would have to have some level of knowledge of the design of the warhead.”

And then there is the issue of the government’s role during in Dr Khan affair. Dr Khan, a revered Pakistani nuclear scientist, confessed in 2004 to illegally selling nuclear weapons secrets for nearly 15 years to a wide range of countries such as North Korea, Iran and Libya.

His trafficking ring is believed to have been the most extensive in history, possibly attempting to sell such information to radical groups. The New York Times reported this month that a Pakistani nuclear scientist and colleague of Mr Khan held talks about nuclear weapons with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, a month before the September 11 attacks.

In an interview in Feb 2004, Dr Khan reportedly told investigators that he conducted his trade with the knowledge of senior Pakistani officials at the time, including the former president, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, a former army chief of staff.

The way for the incoming Obama administration to stem the sway of radical elements in Pakistan is for the United States to stop providing justification for radical Islamist causes, said Narayanabba Janardhan, a UAE-based analyst specialising in Gulf-Asia affairs. That means steering America away from the policies of George W Bush, which have helped more than any other cause to galvanise support for religious parties in the country.

“How did all these religious groups gain more power in Pakistan? They came to power on the basis of 9/11,” said Dr Janardhan. “Post-9/11 American policy towards Afghanistan is what made all these religious groups in Pakistan gain more support.

“Even with the best of intentions, if America were to go about making hard moves in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a real chance that Islamic elements will acquire power much more than they already have.”

While Mr Obama has yet to set out his policy for Pakistan, he has made it clear that he sees fighting militants in neighbouring Afghanistan a priority. Underlining that, his vice president, Joe Biden, was in Pakistan this week on a fact-finding mission.

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