Anti-nuke project gathers steam

OUTSOURCING: The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership aims to make enriched uranium available for energy needs, thereby reducing the risk of nations producing atomic arms

AP , VIENNA

Tue, Sep 18, 2007 - Page 6

Eleven more nations backed the concept of a US-initiated project that aims to reduce the dangers of nuclear proliferation and control radioactive waste, while acknowledging that they were far from achieving such goals.

At issue at an international gathering on Sunday in Vienna was the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), under which a limited number of countries, including the US and Russia, would provide uranium fuel to other nations and then retrieve it for reprocessing.

That would allow countries to obtain fuel to power reactors for generating electricity but would deprive them of their own nuclear fuel enrichment programs, which can be used to make atomic arms. Iran's refusal to scrap its enrichment program, coupled with suspicious past nuclear activities, have led to two sets of UN Security Council sanctions because of concerns that it wants to make such weapons.

Iran, North Korea and other proliferation dangers past and present have played a role in the US concept -- and GNEP was also to be discussed at a 144-nation International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference opening yesterday.

Iran argues it has a right to enrichment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and says it seeks to use enrichment only for generating energy. There is general recognition that nations should have access to low-enriched uranium for such peaceful uses.

In Tehran on Sunday, state television quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mouchehr Mottaki as saying enriched uranium fuel is ready to be shipped from Russia to Iran's first nuclear power plant. But Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency quoted an unidentified Russian diplomat as saying that was not so.

The project has been beset by repeated delays due to payment problems on the Iranian side, according to the Russians. Tehran, however, maintains it is because Moscow has been caving into Western pressure to halt the project.

One solution that has been suggested to the controversy over Iran's nuclear program is for it to abandon its efforts to enrich uranium and just buy the necessary fuel from Russia.

Fears that indigenous enrichment programs like Iran's could be misused for weapons have led to attempts to create global fuel banks. These would guarantee supplies of energy-capable enriched uranium without the need for home-run enrichment programs and their potential for weapons making.

Such plans could indirectly hasten the nuclear arms race, however, by encouraging countries to start or revive past programs before any global plan is in place.

Already, Argentina and South Africa have said they plan to revive their enrichment activities, while Australia plans to start from scratch. While no one suggests they are looking for a weapons program, their examples could embolden other nations in less stable regions.

Additionally, critics of the initiative say resuming reprocessing -- which the US abandoned in the 1970s over proliferation concerns -- can make it easier for terrorists or enemy states to obtain weapons-usable plutonium. And although the program envisions reprocessing through a technique where pure plutonium is not separated, that technology is commonly said to be decades away.

But senior US officials played down concerns on Sunday as they hosted a signing ceremony for the GNEP "Statement of Principles" -- a nonbinding document that basically expresses support for ``the common vision of the necessity of the expansion of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes worldwide in a safe and secure manner.''

US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Iran was not discussed at Sunday's meeting in Vienna.