Monday, October 30, 2006
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
VIENNA, Austria — When more than 100 ambassadors gathered at the United Nations nuclear agency to mark its 50th year of juggling global arms and energy demands, organizers were surprised by the ambitious agenda that the envoys had in mind:
More countries than ever wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency to back their desires for nuclear power.
In the first surge of interest in building nuclear power plants in decades — what some analysts are calling a global nuclear renaissance — countries as far afield as Egypt, Poland, Nigeria and Vietnam expressed nuclear aspirations at the IAEA's annual meeting last month.
Driving those aspirations are high oil prices, increased evidence of global warming and, most significantly, fresh and provocative debate as world powers increasingly struggle with fears of renegade uses of nuclear technology and how to keep sensitive know-how from falling into the wrong hands.
Case in point is North Korea, which years ago bolted from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty designed to ensure peaceful uses and last week conducted an underground test of a nuclear weapon. Iran, which hid its uranium-enrichment efforts for years, also is in a standoff with the U.N. Security Council over its right to master the fuel cycle.
Iran insists it is pursuing enrichment to supply power plants. Western powers suspect that Iran may have similar ambitions to North Korea and be working to enhance its fuel process to weapons capability.
On Monday, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, estimated that as many as 30 nations "in a very short time" could have technology that would let them someday produce nuclear weapons. At a conference on nuclear proliferation in Vienna, he said that a cadre of "virtual new weapons states" was evolving, without naming any specific country. Those countries may be "hedging their bets" by developing civilian energy programs that could quickly be converted into arms programs, he said.
The disputes with Iran and North Korea have complicated international nuclear issues but they have also clarified how other nations will have to carefully stake their peaceful claims in a nuclear world.
While Iran is attempting to enrich its own uranium, other potential nuclear countries view fuel production as too difficult and costly an endeavor. They want to fuel their power plants by buying enriched uranium commercially from suppliers in Russia, France, the United States and a consortium that includes Britain, the Netherlands and Germany.
"It is energy security," Poland's U.N. ambassador Jacek Bylica said about options discussed with ElBaradei. "We feel it's much more secure for us to have independent sources of energy" without relying solely on outside oil and gas supplies, Bylica said.
Analysts said interest in civilian nuclear energy has flourished in the past two years as countries assess large-scale forecasts for power demands. Countries are exploring the option with an enthusiasm not seen since the 1970s. Seventeen of the 28 nuclear plants under construction in the world are in Asia; developing countries are notably eager for information.
In the past 18 months, ElBaradei has visited Ghana, Nigeria, Turkey and Egypt, answering questions about possible plant construction.
"Why are more countries interested? When the price of oil rises, alternatives begin to make sense. ... Wind and solar power can't cover their needs. For many, it comes down to practical considerations: When people go home at night, do the lights come on?" said Tariq Rauf, IAEA's verification and security policy chief.
The passing of time also plays a role. Long shadows of concern cast by the accidents in 1979 at Three Mile Island in the U.S. and in 1986 at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union have receded. It is generally agreed that reforms have greatly strengthened safety margins, even if some critics are not yet satisfied.
In Poland, the Communist political elite was so frightened by Chernobyl that officials scrapped a nuclear reactor ready for installation in 1986 and sold it at a bargain price to Finland. Twenty years later, a democratic Poland, a member of the European Union and NATO, is seriously revisiting the idea.
"There was a perception in the 1980s that the Communist government then was hiding the dangers and the environmental impact of nuclear plants," Bylica said. Enhanced safeguards and economic necessities now make nuclear power attractive.
Egypt, which supported nuclear research in the 1960s, also shelved its work after Chernobyl. But as oil and natural gas supplies ebb, and electricity demand climbs as much as 7 percent a year, Egypt is looking for options. Its U.N. ambassador, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, said Egypt is eyeing nuclear plants but has no plans to enrich uranium. For Egyptians, the dispute between Iran and the Security Council is a cautionary tale.
"Countries like Japan and Brazil are almost already there," he said about efforts to produce enriched uranium. "It's unrealistic to think countries (like that) are going to retreat. ... But countries just starting out have to be practical and judge whether it's worth the fight."
Inherent in that bargain, however, is the question of how countries will find fuel to power their plants if, for any reason, commercial supplies are disrupted. At the IAEA general conference in September, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S-based foundation aimed at reducing nuclear risks, pledged $50 million to create a uranium stockpile as a safeguard for countries that choose not to produce their own nuclear fuel.
The idea behind the largess is simple: The fewer countries that produce fuel, the lower the risks. Nuclear observers agree that rogue elements that seek to traffic in or use the fuel for criminal or terrorist purposes are an increasing threat.
The pledge, backed by CNN founder Ted Turner, former Sen. Sam Nunn and financial adviser Warren Buffett, would allow the IAEA to determine the conditions of access. The fuel bank is one of about six proposals that emerged this year as nuclear nations try to strengthen safety perimeters.
"We are looking for a new paradigm" so newcomers don't feel compelled to pursue their own nuclear enrichment programs, said Charles Curtis, a former undersecretary of energy and president of the foundation.
"We have an urgent need to effect new international cooperation. And right now," Curtis said, "it's a race between cooperation and catastrophe."
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.