News & Current Affairs

September 18, 2008

Australia MPs oppose uranium sale

Australia MPs oppose uranium sale

Undated BHP Billiton photo of the Olympic Dam copper and uranium operation in Roxby Downs, Australia

Australia has 40% of the world’s known uranium resources

Australia should not sell uranium to Russia, a parliamentary committee says.

It said the $800 million deal should not go ahead until Russia assuaged doubts about the separation of its civilian and military uses of uranium.

The deal was signed by former Prime Minister John Howard and Russian leader Vladimir Putin last year.

The committee said assurances were needed on Russia’s compliance with, and long-term commitment to, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Opposition members of parliament supported the uranium sales. They argued Australia would benefit from the trade, and said safeguards against any future military use of the uranium were adequate.

But the report presented to parliament on Thursday recommended that “further consideration is given to the potential ramifications for this agreement”.

The committee said any facilities taking Australian uranium should be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Russia has insisted that it would only use Australian uranium for civilian purposes, to generate power at home, and would not export it for use elsewhere.

Some reports of the committee’s findings suggested that opposition to the deal was strengthened by Russia’s recent incursions into Georgia.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned earlier this month that if Russia failed to withdraw its troops from neighboring Georgia, Australia might withhold approval of the new agreement.

Australia has 40% of the world’s known uranium resources and exports the product to more than 30 countries under strict conditions.

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September 12, 2008

Surrender by ‘uranium theft’ man

Surrender by ‘uranium theft’ man

Photo by Anirban Roy

Local objections have stopped mining from officially starting

A tribal man wanted in connection with the smuggling of uranium ore has surrendered to the police in India’s north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

Earlier this week, police arrested five people and recovered a packet of about 1kg of unprocessed uranium from them.

It is not clear how much ore the group had, or what it planned to do with it.

The arrests are at an embarrassing time for India, just days after the Nuclear Suppliers Group ended a ban on civilian nuclear trade with the country.

Indian officials had worked hard to persuade members of the group, which governs global trade in nuclear components, that its nuclear industry was in safe hands.

Uranium is the basic fuel for nuclear weapons, but it has to go through complex processes before it is sufficiently enriched for use.

‘Stolen’

John Khongmin gave himself up to the police in the West Khasi Hills district late on Wednesday after police circulated a look-out notice for him.

Mr Khongmin’s father is an employee of the government-run Atomic Minerals Division.

The Domiosiat mining site. Picture by Anirban Roy

Children play at Domiosiat – prized by experts for the quality of its ore

“We are trying to find out whether the group has stolen more and where were they trying to sell it,” district police official M Khakrang said.

Police say they are not sure whether the men are part of an organized global enterprise, or simply some amateurs, trying to make some quick money.

The seizure was made in the village of Mairang on Monday when police detained four people, including a village headman, for stealing a quantity of uranium.

A fifth man surrendered on Tuesday after the police carried out a search of the area.

Earlier in May too, police arrested five people for stealing uranium ore.

Others have been arrested in the past for trying to smuggle uranium out of the state.

“But we don’t know yet whether this is an organized racket. It could well be and we may have not yet found the kingpins,” Mr Khakrang said.

Proposed mines

Early in the 1990s, India’s Atomic Minerals Division discovered huge deposits of uranium at Domiosiat and Wakkhaji in the West Khasi Hills.

The Indian government announced in January it wanted to open cast mine 375,000 tonnes of uranium ore annually in the area.

But mining has been unable to start so far because of objections from local tribespeople who fear radiation contamination.

Officials say the proposed mines contain 16% of India’s known uranium deposits.

India is desperate for enriched uranium to boost its nuclear power generation.

It recently signed a controversial accord with the US under which it will receive civilian nuclear fuel and technology. The deal now awaits approval from the US Congress.

August 7, 2008

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

JERUSALEM – Israel is building up its strike capabilities amid growing anxiety over Iran‘s nuclear ambitions and appears confident that a military attack would cripple Tehran’s atomic program, even if it can’t destroy it.

Such talk could be more threat than reality. However, Iran’s refusal to accept Western conditions is worrying Israel as is the perception that Washington now prefers diplomacy over confrontation with Tehran.

The Jewish state has purchased 90 F-16I fighter planes that can carry enough fuel to reach Iran, and will receive 11 more by the end of next year. It has bought two new Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed warheads — in addition to the three it already has.

And this summer it carried out air maneuvers in the Mediterranean that touched off an international debate over whether they were a “dress rehearsal” for an imminent attack, a stern warning to Iran or a just a way to get allies to step up the pressure on Tehran to stop building nukes.

According to foreign media reports, Israeli intelligence is active inside Iranian territory. Israel’s military censor, who can impose a range of legal sanctions against journalists operating in the country, does not permit publication of details of such information in news reports written from Israel.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear program took on new urgency this week after U.S. officials rejected Tehran’s response to an incentives package aimed at getting it to stop sensitive nuclear activity — setting the stage for a fourth round of international sanctions against the country.

Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear power, sees an atomic bomb in Iranian hands as a direct threat to its existence.

Israel believes Tehran will have enriched enough uranium for a nuclear bomb by next year or 2010 at the latest. The United States has trimmed its estimate that Iran is several years or as much as a decade away from being able to field a bomb, but has not been precise about a timetable. In general U.S. officials think Iran isn’t as close to a bomb as Israel claims, but are concerned that Iran is working faster than anticipated to add centrifuges, the workhorses of uranium enrichment.

“If Israeli, U.S., or European intelligence gets proof that Iran has succeeded in developing nuclear weapons technology, then Israel will respond in a manner reflecting the existential threat posed by such a weapon,” said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a policy forum in Washington last week.

“Israel takes (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding its destruction seriously. Israel cannot risk another Holocaust,” Mofaz said.

The Iranian leader has in the past called for Israel’s elimination, though his exact remarks have been disputed. Some translators say he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” while others say a better translation would be “vanish from the pages of time” — implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment is meant only for electricity generation, not a bomb — an assertion that most Western nations see as disingenuous.

Israeli policymakers and experts have been debating for quite some time whether it would even be possible for Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear program. The mission would be far more complicated than a 1981 Israeli raid that destroyed Iraq’s partially built Osirak nuclear reactor, or an Israeli raid last year on what U.S. intelligence officials said was another unfinished nuclear facility in Syria.

In Iran, multiple atomic installations are scattered throughout the country, some underground or bored into mountains — unlike the Iraqi and Syrian installations, which were single aboveground complexes.

Still, the Syria action seemed to indicate that Israel would also be willing to use force preemptively against Iran.

“For Israel this is not a target that cannot be achieved,” said Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former head of Israel’s army intelligence.

However, it’s unlikely Israel would carry out an attack without approval from the United States.

Recent signs that Washington may be moving away from a military option — including a proposal to open a low-level U.S. diplomatic office in Tehran and a recent decision to allow a senior U.S. diplomat to participate alongside Iran in international talks in Geneva — are not sitting very well with Israel.

That may help explain recent visits to Jerusalem by Mike McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each of whom delivered a message to Israel that it does not have a green light to attack Iran at this time.

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they do not wish to appear at odds with their most important ally, said they were concerned about a possible softening of the U.S. stance toward Iran.

Apparently to allay Israeli concerns, Bush administration officials last week assured visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the U.S. has not ruled out the possibility of a military strike on Iran. And the U.S., aware of Israel’s high anxiety over Iran’s nukes, is also hooking Israel up to an advanced missile detection system known as X-Band to guard against any future attack by Iran, said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions over the issue have not been made public.

With sanctions and diplomacy still the international community’s preferred method to get Iran to stop building the bomb, an Israeli strike does not appear imminent.

If it did attack, however, Israel would have to contend with upgraded Iranian defense capabilities, including 29 new Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile systems Iran purchased from Russia last year in a $700 million deal.

Russia has so far not gone through with a proposed sale to Iran of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, an even more powerful air defense system than the Tor-M1. An Israeli defense official said the deal is still on the table, however. This is a big source of consternation for Israel because the system could significantly complicate a pre-emptive Israeli assault on Iran.

Military experts say an Israeli strike would require manned aircraft to bombard multiple targets and heavy precision bombs that can blast through underground bunkers — something Israel failed to do in its 2006 war against Hezbollah. It’s widely assumed that Israel is seeking to obtain bunker buster bombs, if it hasn’t already done so.

Elite ground troops could also be necessary to penetrate the most difficult sites, though Israeli military planners say they see that option as perhaps too risky.

America’s ability to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities is far superior to Israel’s.

Unlike Israel, the United States has cruise missiles that can deliver high-explosive bombs to precise locations and B-2 bombers capable of dropping 85 500-pound bombs in a single run.

Yet the cost of an attack — by the U.S., Israel or both — is likely to be enormous.

Iran could halt oil production and shut down tanker traffic in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which could send the price of crude skyrocketing and wreck Western economies.

It could stir up trouble for the U.S. in Iraq by revving up Shiite militias there just as Washington is showing some important gains in reining in Iraqi chaos.

It could activate its militant proxies in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, from where Israel could come under heavy rocket attack. And it could strike Israel with its arsenal of Shahab-3 long-range missiles — something Israel is hoping to guard against through its Arrow missile defense system.

Perhaps most importantly, any strike on Iran — especially if it’s done without having exhausted all diplomatic channels — could have the opposite of the desired effect, “actually increasing the nationalist fervor to build a nuclear weapon,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli and expert on Iranian affairs.

Whether an attack on Iran would be worth its cost would depend on how long the nuclear program could be delayed, said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“A two, three-year delay is not worth it. For a five to 10-year delay I would say yes,” he said.

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