Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nuclear News Roundup for March 1, 2012

North Korea agrees to suspend uranium enrichment, nuclear tests

U.S food aid is clearly marked for recipients
The Washington Post and other mainstream news media report that North Korea said Feb 29 it would halt parts of its nuclear weapons program and allow IAEA inspectors back into the country.

The breakthrough in negotiations with the unpredictable leaders of the secretive government came as a result of an offer of food from the U.S. and a pledge of no hostile intent, a guarantee the North Koreans have long sought.

According to the U.S. State Department, North Korea agrees to suspend nuclear weapons tests, enrichment of uranium, and long-range missile launches.  However, this isn't the first time North Korea has made such pledges only to renege on them later for political reasons.  The U.S. suspended food aid two years ago for this reason.

North Korea's decision to engage with the West on these critical issues comes at a time when the government there is in transition.  Kim Jung Eun, age 29, is following in his father's footsteps with a tacit support of the nation's huge military establishment.

The request for food aid could be seen as an effort to insure domestic tranquility while the various power groups in North Korea sort out how their relationships are changed by the ascent to power of the untested son of the country's former strong man Kim Jong II.

Another issue is who is going to get the food aid. In the past it has been diverted to the military and elite government groups.  This agreement could simply result in simply propping up a military force that can feed itself.

North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for about a dozen bombs. Its long-range missiles may have the capability to reach the U.S. west coast.

U.S. diplomats with experience in dealing with North Korea told the Washington Post they have "limited expectations" about how this latest round of negotiations will turn out.

Iran's enrichment machines failing?

Uranium centrifuges
Iran may be having trouble building out its uranium enrichment cascades according to a Reuters report of Feb 27. The IAEA says that Iran's boasts that it is vastly expanding its infrastructure at Natanz and underground at Fordow may not be supported by the facts. Alli Heinonen, the lead IAEA inspector, said Iran is having trouble with poor performance from outdated technology in terms of uranium enrichment centrifuges.

Reuters also reported that David Albright, of the ISIS think tank said the ability of Iran to link cascades to produce 20% U235 isn't going well.  Part of the reason is that Iran started its enrichment work with older models of centrifuges based on a design from Pakistan and has introduced two newer generations of technology to the same plants.  Mastering the new technology is taking more time.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg wire service and the Washington Post report the Obama administration is ratcheting up its drum beating about military options related to iran in advance of a visit to the U.S. by Irsaeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Obama administration officials are escalating warnings that the U.S. could join Israel in attacking Iran if the Islamic republic doesn’t dispel concerns that its nuclear-research program is aimed at producing weapons.

Four days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in Washington, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told reporters the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict. "  -- Bloomberg

The Washington Post coverage indicates U.S. military planners believe Iran's underground facilities are more vulnerable to so-called "bunker buster" bombs than previously thought.

In an OP ED in the New York Times, Middle East expert Martin INdyk says the Obama administration is backing itself into a corner with its sabre rattling leaving Iran with no place to go in terms of a negotiated agreement for peaceful use of nuclear energy.

"The only way out of the vicious circle is for Khamenei to understand that Obama is not seeking his overthrow — that behind the negotiating door lies a path to Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power and not a corridor to the gallows."

Indyk says that Obama cannot appear to look weak to Republicans or domestic groups in an election year.  He says "We are now engaged in a three-way game of chicken" in which political survival makes blinking more dangerous than confrontation.

This blog believes no one's interests relative to Iran at this stage are served by military conflict.  Maybe the agreement with North Korea will be a signal to Iran and the U.S. there are other options.

U.K. commits to MOX

MOX fuel word tag cloud
The U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) says its preferred policy for dealing with 112 tonnes of surplus plutonium is to turn it into MOX fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors.

The announcement comes following an extensive public consultation over possible solutions for disposing of the surplus material which was generated since the 1950s from reprocessing of spent fuel at Sellafield.

NDA strategy director Adrian Simper said that "re-use of plutonium as MOX fuel remains the best option."

The NDA expects to make a decision to build a MOX fuel plant by 2015 with manufacturing operations coming online within eight years.  Of the total amount held at Sellafield, about 10% belongs to Japanese nuclear utilities.  The NDA would like to have Japan as a customer for the MOX fuel and even more to the point, as an investor in the plant.

It may be a while before Japan needs the fuel. According to wire service reports, Japan may have all of its reactors shut down by May and little prospect for restarting them due to political opposition.  Economic analysts have predicted Japan's exports will tank as a result leading to increased trade deficits and business woes at home.

The largest federation of Japanese businesses has issued a strong statement in favor of restarting the reactors and soon.  The Japanese steel industry has said that if the reactors are not restarted, which are needed to run their electro-furnaces, they will take their production, and jobs,to other countries that have reliable supplies of electricity.

South Africa to try again for bids on new nuclear reactors

In 2008 South Africa briefly offered for bid a tender for up to 12 LWR reactors but withdrew it as it had to admit neither the government nor Eskom, the state-owned electric utility, had the money for pay for the new build.

In the new bid process, the South African government has established that it expects to spend about $40 billion on new reactors. At $4,000/Kw for 1,000 MW plants (overnight costs), that would come to six to eight reactors plus new transmission and distribution infrastructure.

A key success factor for Eskom will be the ability to charge for the new electric generating capacity.  The government and Eskom are still broke, but their path forward now appears to be to have the bidders finance and operate the plants for the first 15 years at guaranteed rates.

Eskom has invited EDF/Areva and China in a possible partnership to bid on the project.  Experts in South Africa told an English language wire service they're skeptical the reactors can be built for bargain basement prices.  Plus, China has not set itself up to export its reactors which domestically are being developed around the Westinghouse AP1000 design.

EDF CEO Henri Prolio told Retuers Feb 16 his firm is prepared to do business with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp. (CGNPC) in a joint partnersip for an Areva EPR (1600 MW) or a hybrid of French and Chinese technology.  Areva is building two EPRs in China and has signed technology transfer agreements.

Re-start in China of new builds not yet under construction in China awaits a political decision to release new nuclear safety regulations.  That country will have to make its case for nuclear safety at home before it will be credible to export its reactors to other nations.

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Robin said...

"This blog believes no one's interests relative to Iran at this stage are served by military conflict."

Per Clausewitz, "War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means." In other words, war is a legitimate extension of politics and this is an accepted position by western thinkers. Clausewitz could not foresee the day when terrorist organizations (Hezbolah, al Queda, etc.) would execute war against the nation state, so it becomes even more pressing to utilize war to disarm the terror state militarily when the politicians have failed. The politicians have failed sir -- and there IS no political solution in sight and Iran IS on the brink of opening pandora's box. No sir, I disagree with your naïveté. There is a very real and necessary interest to be served, namely yours mine, and anyone else who chooses not to heel to medievil slimeballs half a world away.

Lawrence said...

Does the NDA "preferred policy" mean a final decision? I was really hoping for the IFR solution.