1. Former Iran Negotiator Says Nuclear Deal Possible
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An end to a nearly decade-long nuclear standoff between Iran and major world powers will be possible if the United States and its European allies recognize Tehran's right to enrich uranium, a former Iranian negotiator said in an editorial.
"Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), scheduled for next month, provide the best opportunity to break the nine-year deadlock over Iran's nuclear program," Hossein Mousavian, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, wrote in an editorial in the Boston Globe.
Mousavian, now a visiting scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey, had been seen as a moderate when in the Iranian government. Although he is not currently a policymaker, such public presentations of Iranian thinking is rare.
Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and rejects U.S. and European allegations that it is secretly amassing the capability to produce atomic weapons. Iran has rejected Security Council demands that it halt enrichment and other sensitive nuclear work, saying it has a sovereign right to atomic energy.
This has led to four rounds of increasingly stringent U.N. Security Council sanctions, mostly focusing on its nuclear and missile industries, but also targeting some financial institutions, a few subsidiaries of its major shipping firm, and companies linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In recent months there has been increased speculation about possible Israeli air strikes on Iran's nuclear sites - which some analysts fear could spark a Middle East war.
For the talks, expected to take place in mid-April, to open the door to a resolution of the standoff with Iran, Mousavian said the United States and its European allies must make clear that war and coercion are not the only options.
They should seek enhanced engagement with Tehran, as U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for.
"This could work - since 2003, Iran has been looking for a viable and durable solution to the diplomatic standoff," wrote Mousavian.
Mousavian was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 before conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over from his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami. According to Western envoys familiar with Mousavian, he appeared at the time to be genuinely interested in reaching a deal with the West.
After he was removed from the nuclear negotiating team, Mousavian was arrested and briefly jailed in 2007 on accusations of espionage. He was acquitted of that charge, which could have carried the death penalty, but was found guilty of "propaganda against the system."
Analysts and diplomats said the charges against Mousavian were really a reflection of an internal Iranian dispute over how to handle Iran's atomic dispute with the West. Some Iranians favor the moderate line adopted by Mousavian while others have backed Ahmadinejad's more confrontational approach.
Mousavian writes that if a deal that is acceptable to both parties is to be reached, the two sides' "bottom lines" should be identified.
"For Iran, this is the recognition of its legitimate right to create a nuclear program - including enrichment - and a backing off by the P5+1 from its zero-enrichment position."
"For the P5+1, it is an absolute prohibition on Iran from creating a nuclear bomb, and having Iran clear up ambiguities in its nuclear program to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Mousavian writes.
The West also needs to abandon calls for regime change and accept that "crippling sanctions, covert actions, and military strikes might slow down Iran's nuclear program but will not stop it."
"In fact, it is too late to demand that Iran suspend enrichment activities," Mousavian writes. "It mastered enrichment technology and reached break-out capability in 2002 and continues to steadily improve its uranium-enrichment capabilities."
The so-called "break-out" capability refers to the ability of a country to construct a nuclear weapon.
A U.S. think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), has said that capping Iranian uranium enrichment at 5 percent purity level compared with the 90 percent needed for a bomb could form part of an interim deal that would give time for more substantial negotiations.
This and other priority measures would "limit Iran's capability to break out quickly," ISIS said in a report.
Among the things the West should offer to Iran is a package that includes recognition of its nuclear rights, ending sanctions, and "normalization of Iran's nuclear file." In return, Iran should offer the IAEA full transparency and permit the most intrusive inspections possible.
Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/31/us-iran-nuclear-idUSBRE82U0CE20120331
2. Iran Talks Due in Istanbul on April 13-14: Clinton
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Iran and six world powers will meet in Turkey on April 13-14 for a round of talks over Tehran's disputed nuclear program, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday. The previous such meeting took place in Istanbul in January 2011, when the two sides failed even to agree on an agenda.
Speaking alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on a visit to Riyadh, Clinton confirmed earlier speculation that negotiations would resume on April 13-14.
Western diplomats and analysts say that getting Tehran to stop the higher-level uranium enrichment it started two years ago will be a priority at the April talks.
Iran says it has a sovereign right to peaceful nuclear technology and has repeatedly rejected U.N. resolutions calling for a suspension of all enrichment.
Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/31/us-usa-gulf-iran-idUSBRE82U0A220120331
1. IAEA Seeks More Info Before any North Korea Trip
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The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Monday it needed more information before it could take up an invitation from North Korea to visit the country three years after its inspectors were expelled. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began talks with North Korea last month over a possible visit.
The invitation appeared to be an attempt by Pyongyang to show it was serious about a nuclear moratorium deal with the United States even though it drew international condemnation for saying it would launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite.
"The IAEA sent a response to the DPRK on 30 March," the agency's spokesman Greg Webb said in an email. North Korea is known formally as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
He said issues that would need to be discussed with the reclusive Asian nation included "the timing of the visit; level and composition of the delegation; technical points and other information for the agency's review".
On March 16 North Korea announced plans for a satellite launch this month using ballistic missile technology the United States says is banned by United Nations sanctions. Washington in turn suspended planned food aid to North Korea.
Asked what impact such a satellite launch would have on the potential IAEA visit, Webb said: "We are following up the invitation we received in a constructive spirit. You will appreciate that we can't simply jump on a plane and go, there are a number of technical aspects that require proper preparation."
It is unclear how much scope for inspections the IAEA would get despite Pyongyang's assurances it would grant access to the Yongbyon nuclear complex to verify a moratorium on uranium enrichment.
The country has limited the inspectors' access during two previous periods.
North Korea expelled the IAEA a decade ago when a 1994 deal with Washington unravelled. It threw the organisation out again in April 2009 after rejecting intrusive inspections agreed under a 2005 aid deal with five regional powers.
Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/02/nuclear-korea-iaea-idUSL6E8F261620120402
2. N. Korea Slams U.S. Plan to Halt Food Aid on Rocket Launch
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North Korea criticized a U.S. announcement that it would suspend food aid if the Asian country carries out a planned “peaceful” satellite launch, calling it an overreaction “beyond the limit.”
Suspending food aid “would be a regrettable act” scrapping the entire Feb. 29 agreement between the two nations, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said, quoting a foreign ministry spokesman it didn’t name.
North Korea drew rebukes from nations including the U.S. earlier this month when it revealed plans to launch an “earth observation satellite” in April to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Seoul for a Nuclear Security Summit this week, warned North Korea that its plan to fire a long-range rocket undermined prospects for future negotiations, while South Korea’s military said Kim Jong Un’s forces had moved the missile to a launch site.
North Korea’s announcement of a mid-April launch will make it difficult to move forward with the aid deal and broader efforts to get the regime back to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program, Obama said.
North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches as well as ending uranium enrichment at its facility in Yongbyon while the U.S. pledged to provide an initial 240,000 metric tons of food, according to a State Department release.
North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-3 is a “scientific and technological satellite for peaceful purposes,” and the country invited outside satellite experts to demonstrate its “sincerity,” KCNA reiterated today. “The U.S. seeks to justify its missile defense system” by describing North Korea’s capabilities as a threat, KCNA quoted the foreign ministry spokesman as saying.
The North Korean satellite will be mounted on a Unha-3 rocket launched from a site in North Phyongan province between April 12 and April 16, a spokesman for the North Korean Committee for Space Technology said in a statement on KCNA earlier this month.
Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim inherited an impoverished country of 24 million dependent on aid from China, and the regime has sought to bolster his image ahead of the April 15 centennial of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth. Kim Jong Il had proclaimed that 2012 would be the year the country becomes “a strong and prosperous nation.”
Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-31/n-korea-slams-u-s-plan-to-halt-food-aid-on-rocket-launch-1-.html
Japan's government has failed to create a revamped nuclear regulatory agency by the promised date, April 1, amid political infighting, raising questions about its commitment to bolstering oversight in the wake of last year's nuclear crisis.
Authorities have been accused of lax regulation and supervision of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors after a massive earthquake and tsunami led to a meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Cabinet has endorsed a bill to create a more powerful and independent regulatory body similar to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would unify various nuclear safety and regulatory offices and be placed under the Environment Agency.
Currently, the main regulatory body, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency, is under the control of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which also promotes nuclear power in the resource-poor country.
But progress in setting up the new agency -- to be called the Nuclear Safety Regulation Agency -- has been slowed by disagreements between the ruling and opposition parties over how much independence it should have, as well by unrelated disputes such as a proposed sales tax hike.
"Obviously, having promoters and regulators under the same roof is not desirable, and we must unify related agencies that are scattered around," Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, who is also in charge of nuclear crisis management, told a parliamentary committee Monday.
He called the delay "regrettable."
The government hasn't set a new target date. Hosono has said that NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission -- an advisory body of experts with no enforcement powers -- will continue to function for the time being. Some officials say the plan should wait until a parliament-appointed accident investigation panel releases its findings and recommendations in June.
Previous investigations into the Fukushima accident have found evidence of lax supervision by NISA, cozy relations with utilities and delays in upgrading safety measures.
On Monday, an NSC member told the same parliamentary committee that NISA repeatedly tried to block her commission's efforts in 2006 to upgrade nuclear accident management plans, saying it would cause unnecessary safety concerns and additional costs.
NSC was trying to extend the government's evacuation guidelines to 30 kilometers (18 miles) from 8-10 kilometers (5-6 miles) to match revisions by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.
Shizuyo Kusumi, a radiation expert and one of five NSC members, said NISA was "very persistent" in its intervention.
"I now regret our revision was delayed," she said. "We were not fully independent and I hope the lessons will be used in a new agency."
In a memo dated April 24, 2006, NISA told the NSC, "We urge you to freeze this matter because it could trigger confusion and escalate public fear over nuclear safety."
Within days of the March 11, 2011, disaster, residents within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the Fukushima plant had to be evacuated, but those living outside 10 kilometers had received no training.
If the revision had been in place before the accident, the 87,000 residents inside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) restricted area around the Fukushima plant "could have been evacuated more quickly and safely," Cabinet office official Hideaki Tsuzuki said.
The commission belatedly adopted a guideline in March -- a full year after the crisis erupted -- to require towns within 30 kilometers (18 miles) to have nuclear accident management plans.
NISA's current chief, Hiroyuki Fukano, said Monday that he regrets the agency was "not conscientious regarding international trends."
All but one Japan's 54 reactors are currently shut down, most of them for regular safety checks, and officials are desperately trying to avoid power shortages. The last remaining reactor is scheduled to go offline in early May.
2. Japan Fukushima Nuclear Zone Partly Opened For First Time
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Japan is letting up to 16,000 people back into their homes around its leaking nuclear power plant, easing restrictions in the no-go zone for the first time since last year's disasters.
They won't be allowed to stay overnight, some must wear protective gear, and it's unclear how many will return at all, but the step is crucial to permanently resettling towns vacated since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and caused meltdowns in three of its reactors.
A 20-kilometer (12-mile) zone around the plant has been off-limits to about 100,000 residents for more than a year because of radiation contamination. But the plant was declared stable in December, with leaks substantially subsiding, and that let officials focus on how to clean up the contamination and allow some people to return.
On Friday, the government said it was rearranging the evacuation zone based on three categories of contamination, rather than by distance. The strict perimeter was long criticized as an inexact measure of safety, as radiation levels varied widely in the area and some hotspots existed outside the area.
The change affects three of the 11 municipalities inside the former evacuation zone.
"The reorganization would be the foundation for the reconstruction of the affected towns. We will thoroughly discuss how we can best accommodate their needs," said Economy and Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who announced the step late Friday.
Starting Sunday, Tamura will allow all residents to visit their homes part-time without protection or permission – but not sleep there just yet, and the town of Kawauchi will allow residents to visit, though they must wear protective gear in some areas.
Areas of Minamisoma fall into all three categories of contamination, but the town will allow residents to visit their homes in the least contaminated areas in mid-April. Residents in the least contaminated areas will be allowed to return permanently following further decontamination efforts.
Kawauchi mayor Yuko Endo welcomed Friday's announcemet and told public broadccaster NHK that, "The revision comes at a right time just as the town tries to rebuild and reborn."
He said however, that residents have a right to choose whether or not to return to their homes right away.
The town office had moved to another part of Fukushima prefecture but moved into a part of Kawauchi just outside the evacuation zone earlier this month to help smooth the process of residents' returning.
While the reclassification means about 16,000 people can return home fairly soon, it's not clear how many will. Most are waiting until the area is further decontaminated and infrastructure restored, and local officials have said towns may lose unity due to the three-way divisions.
Under the revised evacuation plans, areas with annual exposure levels estimated at 20 millisieverts or below are deemed safe for people to visit and prepare for their permanent return, while being encouraged to make further decontamination efforts. Limited access is allowed for residents in areas with higher contamination – up to 50 millisieverts of estimated annual exposure. Places with annual exposure estimates exceeding that will remain off-limits.
Despite the government declaration that Fukushima Dai-ichi is stable, the plant is largely running on makeshift equipment and remains vulnerable. Officials have said that it would take up to 40 years to fully decommission the highly contaminated plant that has three reactors with melted cores.
Decontamination efforts also are uncertain. Experts have said there is no established method, and more highly contaminated areas are difficult to clean up.
Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, also the nuclear crisis management minister, said Friday that containing radiation release and keeping the plant stability is crucial to the return of affected residents.
3. Japan's Tepco Scraps Plans for New Reactors at Stricken Plant
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Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, said on Friday it had notified Japan's trade ministry it was dropping plans for two more nuclear reactors at its Fukushima Daiichi plant, paralyzed last year by a devastating earthquake.
Tepco said it would scrap this month a 253 megawatt (MW) emergency power facility comprised of diesel generators and gas turbines at the Hitachinaka station north of Tokyo.
In contrast, Tohoku Electric Power Co retained its plans to build a new 825 MW nuclear reactor near the Fukushima Daiichi station, but said it could give no date for the reactor's commercial operation, earlier set for 2021.
Tohoku officials told a news conference they expected it would be difficult to build and operate a third nuclear plant due to protests from local authorities.
Utilities this week submitted to the trade ministry power capacity plans for the financial year starting on April 1, but declined to detail power supply plans for the summer until they gather estimates of surplus power supply from other utilities and customer demand.
Tepco, Japan's biggest buyer of liquefied natural gas, has said it would be hard to restart in 2012/13 any reactors shut for maintenance, since they face strong opposition from local communities hosting its sole facility unaffected by the quake, the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant.
The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami caused reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, triggering a radiation crisis and widespread contamination. Tens of thousands of residents within 20 km (12 miles) of the plant have been forced to evacuate, leaving behind their homes and livelihoods.
The disaster has left Tepco with huge compensation and clean-up costs, a mounting bill for fossil fuels to replace lost nuclear capacity, and the massive burden of decommissioning the devastated reactors, a process expected to take decades.
India will operate two nuclear powered submarines soon as it inducts the Russian Nerpa and launches the indigenous INS Arihant, Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) Chief V K Saraswat said on Saturday.
"INS Arihant is in advanced stages. It will be ready for operations within the next few months,” he was quoted by The Economic Times as saying.
India is also testing the Sagarika K-15 missile that will be carried by INS Arihant, V K Saraswat said, adding that more than 10 test launches have been carried out in the Bay of Bengal.
The Nerpa has been leased from Russia for ten years and will be delivered next week, he said. The Nerpa, an Akula II-class attack submarine, had originally been scheduled for delivery to India in 2008. However, that date was moved back after twenty people, mostly civilians, died during sea trials earlier that year when a fire-suppressant gas was accidently released on the sub.
Available at: http://en.ria.ru/mlitary_news/20120331/172519681.html
1. Russia May Build Nuclear Stations in U.K., Kommersant Reports
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Rosatom Corp., Russia’s state-run nuclear holding, may buy a stake in the $24 billion Horizon project to build atomic power stations in the U.K., Kommersant reported, citing an unidentified company official. RWE AG (RWE) and EON AG (EOAN), Germany’s biggest utilities, said March 29 that they won’t build reactors in the U.K. through their Horizon Nuclear Power venture, threatening government plans to wean the country off fossil fuels.
Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-02/russia-may-build-nuclear-stations-in-u-k-kommersant-reports.html
2. UK Nuclear Energy Setback as Reactor Plan Falls Through
Power Engineering International
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Britain’s plans for a new generation of nuclear plants suffered a setback after two German companies pulled out of multibillion-pound plans to build reactors, citing the economic crisis and the German government s decision to abandon nuclear power.
The utility companies Eon and RWE said they had decided not to proceed with plans to build plants and were putting their Horizon joint venture up for sale.
The decision was based on strategic grounds as well as the financial constraints of the two companies, said Tony Cocker, chief executive of Eon UK, citing the recession, relatively high gas prices in Europe and the nuclear phase-out in Germany as key reasons.
We, therefore, have less financial power than we had, he said, adding that both companies remained committed to investing in other forms of energy generation in the UK.
The decision to sell the joint venture is a setback for the UK and could delay plans for up to 12 reactors that form a crucial part of the government s ambition to promote low-carbon sources of electricity while keeping the lights on.
Eon and RWE were among four utilities planning to build reactors in the UK.
The government insisted its plans were on track and said the withdrawal was based on pressures elsewhere in their businesses and not any doubts about the role of nuclear in the UK s energy future . One person familiar with the government s thinking insisted: Of course this is a pain in the neck but it s a frustration; it does not mean Britain s plans are in disarray.
Other utilities and financial investors, including sovereign wealth funds, are seen as possible buyers for Horizon.
Andrew Horstead, energy risk analyst at Utilyx, said: The UK is paying the price of Germany s decision to pull out of nuclear and the subsequent massive losses endured by both RWE and Eon, which have clearly taken stock of the current economic conditions and decided that the time is not right to be investing such massive sums in new capacity.
The government is reforming the electricity market, in part to make it more attractive for companies to overcome the high capital cost of building reactors or offshore wind farms. One element of the reform includes long-term contracts that would pay a steady rate of return for energy over the lifetime of new plants.
Horizon has sites in Wales and the west of England and had planned to start construction of the first reactor by 2015. It was about to choose the design for its reactors. Unless a new owner is found, it would leave just two consortiums: one led by EDF Energy, a subsidiary of French utility EDF, with Centrica of the UK, and one made up of GDF Suez of France and Iberdrola of Spain. SSE, the UK utility, pulled out of the latter consortium last year.
Available at: http://www.power-eng.com/news/2012/03/30/uk-nuclear-energy-setback-as-reactor-plan-falls-through.html
South Africa is mulling the re-establishment of its uranium enrichment and conversion facilities, which were dismantled during the apartheid era, as it seeks to secure fuel for a new fleet of nuclear power stations.
Africa's largest economy, which announced more than 40 years ago that it would enrich uranium as part of a military-linked strategy during the Cold War, wants another 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy to help shore up a power grid under pressure from rising demand and decades of under investment.
"The studies confirmed that fuel for the power reactor fleet should be manufactured in South Africa for reasons of security of supply when the nuclear component is expected to be around 13 percent of installed capacity," Chantal Janneker, Necsa's group spokeswoman, told Reuters.
Necsa, the country's nuclear energy corporation, is being encouraged to revive its participation in the nuclear value chain - including enrichment, conversion and nuclear fuel manufacturing - to reduce South Africa's current dependence on imported reactor fuels.
The country has some of the world's largest uranium deposits and the new nuclear fleet is likely to use 465 metric tonnes of enriched uranium a year by 2030.
"Earlier feasibility studies have shown that the fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor fleet of about 10,000 megawatts makes uranium enrichment a viable undertaking," Janneker said.
Necsa will investigate developing its own enrichment technology or partner with an international company.
However, power utility Eskom, which oversees the continent's only nuclear power station Koeberg near Cape Town, said the plan was for the enrichment facilities to develop together, and not ahead, of the expansion programme so that fuel production plants can be economically sustainable.
"Eskom is in close liaison with Necsa to ensure that its nuclear fuel supply contracts are aligned with South Africa's nuclear fuel production localisation strategies," Tony Stott, a senior manager at Eskom's generation division, told Reuters.
Necsa supplied nuclear fuel to the 1,800 MW Koeberg power station between 1988 and 1994, but discontinued the service because its operations were globally uncompetitive.
Areva and Toshiba's Westinghouse Electric Corp at present supply Koeberg with 30 metric tonnes of enriched uranium a year for its two units.
The plan by South Africa, which voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, takes place against the backdrop of rising global concern that countries, such as Iran, could use enrichment technology for weapons development. Iran denies these charges.
"Some political pressure can be expected. It is, however, generally accepted that a local enrichment capacity for peaceful purposes can be justified if the country has a local demand or expansion plan of 10 gigawatts nuclear," Stott said.
As a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, South Africa is required to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor all nuclear materials in the country to verify they are not being diverted from peaceful activities.
Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/02/safrica-nuclear-idUSL6E8F21AU20120402
2. Lithuania Wraps Up Talks with Hitachi on Nuclear Plant
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Lithuania took a significant step forward on Friday toward realising plans for Japan's Hitachi to build a new nuclear plant by 2020-2022, as the country seeks to reduce its dependence on Russian energy.
Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius was upbeat after the government initialled a concession agreement with Hitachi Ltd. , saying it would boost energy security as Lithuania seeks to wean itself off from energy imports from its former Soviet master, Russia.
"Today we concluded negotiations with the strategic investor, Hitachi, to open the door for the biggest investment in Lithuania ever," he told reporters about the nuclear plant expected to cost 17 billion litas ($6.54 billion).
The concession agreement provides the contractual framework for the nuclear plant including rights for the project company to design, construct and operate and later decommission the facility. It also sets out host country and investor rights and obligations and agreed timeline for delivery.
The government still has to give final approval after the Finance Ministry gives its opinion on the financial obligations Lithuania will take. Parliament's approval will also be needed before a planned final signing of the deal in late June.
Kubilius has a one-seat majority in parliament and is running behind in opinion polls to the opposition Social Democrats ahead of an election in October.
The main opposition Social Democrat Party has voiced doubts about the project. Some lawmakers and environmentalists have proposed holding a referendum.
Lithuania wants to have at least 34 percent of the new plant, which means investments of up to 6 billion litas.
It hopes to share the rest of the bill with regional partners and Hitachi. A final investment decision is expected to be made by all partners by March 2015.
Last July, Lithuania picked Japan-U.S. joint venture Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy to supply a 1,300 megawatt advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR).
Russia is the only supplier of gas to Lithuania and a key supplier of electricity after the Baltic state shut down its Soviet-era Ignalina nuclear power plant at the end of 2009.
A giant nuclear centrifuge project in southern Ohio will move forward despite a setback in Congress this week, uranium enrichment company USEC said Friday.
Congress' failure to act on a long-term transportation bill means that a $106 million research and development grant for the American Centrifuge Project remains in limbo. That provision was included in the Senate version, but it faces some resistance in the House, which has stricter rules on "earmarks."
The grant is a stopgap measure while the company seeks $2 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees to expand the project, which it says will support 2,000 jobs in Ohio and a half-dozen other states.
Other loan guarantees have come under congressional scrutiny after the bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra despite $535 million in federal loan backing. USA TODAY reported this month that some Republican critics of the Solyndra project had urged "immediate action" on USEC's loan guarantee even after Solyndra's failure became known.
USEC had told investors and analysts that it needed federal action on the grant by March 31, or it would be forced to start winding down operations.
The project, once completed, would provide the only domestically owned source of enriched uranium for commercial and military use when USEC's Paducah, Ky., plant — which uses 60-year-old gaseous diffusion technology — closes.
In a regulatory filing this month, the company said it had renegotiated the terms of its credit, allowing it to borrow $15 million a month to operate the project through May. In June, that drops to $1 million.
That's important because the short-term transportation extension, signed by the president today, runs for 90 days— meaning Congress won't have to pass a final bill until the end of June.
"Federal funding needs to be in place in the very near term," USEC CEO John K. Welch said in a statement. Still, he said the government talks have made enough progress for its board to justify "continued limited spending" on the project.
The project is in the district of Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, who was defeated in the Republican primary this month. She and other members of a bipartisan, multistate delegation of project supporters are pushing Energy Secretary Steven Chu to award the grant out of existing funds.
Chu has told lawmakers he wants a clear signal from Congress that he has the authority.
"We're continuing to work with Congress, and we're hopeful that the House picks up the language in the Senate transportation bill," said DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman. "We are, beyond that, looking at whatever potential options are available."
President Obama supported the project when he campaigned in southern Ohio in 2008 and has included an additional $150 million in research funding in his 2013 budget. Even if approved by Congress, that funding won't be available at least until the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. All told, $300 million in grant funding would allow USEC to update its loan guarantee application in 2013, Welch said.
"The administration has been incredibly clear from the secretary up to the White House," Stutsman said. "We've done everything that we can to move this project forward. We are trying to take steps to make sure the U.S. has a domestic enrichment capability that is necessary for national security while protecting taxpayer dollars."
4. Scana Receives NRC Approval to Build South Carolina Reactors
Brian Wingfield and Julie Johnsson
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Scana Corp. (SCG) won U.S. approval to build nuclear reactors, the second construction permit issued by regulators in more than 30 years for units that may be among the nation’s last erected this decade. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission today voted 4-1 to approve the Cayce, South Carolina, company’s plan to construct and operate two units at its Virgil C. Summer plant, about 26 miles (42 kilometers) northwest of Columbia. Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissented, citing pending safety rules in response to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster in Japan last year.
“I continue to believe that we should require that all Fukushima-related safety enhancements are implemented before these new reactors begin operating,” Jaczko said in his vote.
Scana, which submitted its application to the NRC in March 2008, will pay 55 percent of the estimated $10.2 billion cost of the project. Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s largest power producer, is responsible for the remainder.
The NRC will require the companies to inspect and test valve systems and develop strategies to respond to natural disasters that may cause a loss of power, the agency said in a statement. The NRC also is requiring that Scana and Santee Cooper comply with an order, issued last month in response to Fukushima, to have reliable instruments to monitor cooling pools for spent fuel.
The reactors are among five units that may be built in the U.S. before 2020, as a glut of natural gas has discouraged investment in other types of generation, including nuclear power. Scana’s first unit won’t be operational until 2017, about a year behind schedule, because of delays in the NRC’s licensing process, the company said yesterday in a statement.
Scana executives were headed today to the NRC’s offices to pick up the new licenses, and crews are poised to begin work on the nuclear portions of the site tomorrow, Kevin Marsh, Scana’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a phone interview.
“I think it’s great for the state of South Carolina,” Marsh said about the NRC vote. “We look forward to building these two new nuclear units to enhance our ability to meet the energy needs of our customers.”
Southern Co. (SO) on Feb. 9 won U.S. approval to build two reactors at its Vogtle plant near Augusta, Georgia, becoming the first company to receive an NRC construction permit since 1978. The Atlanta-based company expects the first unit to be in service by 2016, with the second a year later.
A 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, slowed development of U.S. nuclear power, which accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The Tennessee Valley Authority is reviewing its timeline for completing work on a reactor it stopped building in 1988, Michael Bradley, a TVA spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The five reactors will provide an additional 5,600 megawatts of nuclear generating capacity on the Southeast’s electricity grid by the end of the decade, Marvin Fertel, chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington- based industry group, said in a statement. “That’s reliable, low-carbon electricity for about 10 cities the size of Columbia.”
Scana fell 4 cents to $45.61 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange trading. The shares have gained 16 percent in the past year.
Scana and Southern plan to build AP1000 reactors designed by Toshiba Corp. (6502)’s Westinghouse Electric Co. Scana’s second unit will be operational by 2018, a year ahead of schedule, under an agreement with project managers Westinghouse of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, and Shaw Group Inc. (SHAW) of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to the utility.
“Many safety issues remain concerning the AP1000 design,” Tom Clements, non-proliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, said in a statement. “It is very vulnerable in the face of an earthquake, which could destroy the cooling system.”
The NRC is weighing rules to improve the safety of U.S. reactors after an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 triggered a triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501)’s Fukushima Dai- Ichi plant. Jaczko also opposed approval of Southern’s license, stating that the commission should have required the company to adhere to lessons from Fukushima.
The NRC on March 9 approved three orders in response to the disaster, including a requirement for reactor owners to have in place by 2016 sufficient emergency equipment to survive a power failure. While Scana is required to comply with the order for spent- fuel pools, the commission has now approved permits for reactors with different sets of safety standards, Jaczko said in an interview following today’s vote.
“There should be consistencies” with these licenses, he said. A requirement for new licenses to comply with all Fukushima-related rules would ensure this outcome, he said.
The NRC’s examination of safety conditions at plants may delay its review of license applications for reactors, including two units Progress Energy Inc. (PGN) has proposed to build in Levy County, Florida, Jaczko said in his vote.
Progress was notified by the agency “a couple weeks ago” that it faced additional review, including seismic analysis, for its proposal to build AP1000 reactors, said Mike Hughes, a spokesman for the Raleigh, North Carolina-based company.
“We don’t yet know what the impact the request and additional analysis will have on the schedule,” Hughes said in an e-mail.
Progress, which is merging with Duke Energy Corp., hasn’t made a final decision on whether to build the reactors, whose licenses are furthest along in the NRC’s review process. The earliest the units would become operational is 2021, Hughes said.
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