In the news (September 3- September 9 2013)

Syria

With the likelihood of U.S. military intervention in Syria still a possibility, the Russian government has voiced concerns that an aerial campaign against the country could lead to the bombing of the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor outside of Damascus, along with other “nuclear objects.” Moscow officially requested that the IAEA provide a report detailing the long-term consequences that such a strike would have last Thursday.

The Agency has chosen to remain vague on the issue. On Friday, IAEA Spokesperson Gill Tudor told UPI that Russia’s formal request had been received and that “the Agency is considering the questions raised.” Director General Yukiya Amano acknowledged that the situation was “complicated.”

As reported by AFP, Reuters, and Bloomberg Joseph Macmanus, the American envoy to the IAEA countered the request at Monday’s private Board of Governors meeting arguing that, “The IAEA has never before conducted this type of analysis, it would exceed IAEA’s mandate” and that the Agency “will have to review such a request in light of its legal authority, mandate, and resources and must determine whether there is a scientific basis for conducting a highly speculative investigation of this kind.”

Friends of AR raised some good points worth mentioning.

1.      There is a food irradiator with a large gamma radiation source right next (250 meters away) to the MNSR facility. An attack on the MNSR would have essentially no impact on local populations but dispersing the food irradiator sources would cause clean-up headaches.  Both these installations are not in Damascus or near other inhabited areas or next to other facilities but in a location on a patch of desert near Damascus. This means that any future hit on the facilities would be very difficult to be claimed as an accident or a collateral damage.

2.      Regarding the comments by Ambassador Macmanus of the United States as reported by the press:

a)      Contrary to what Amb. Macmanus alluded to, that such a request is unprecedented and beyond the mandate of the IAEA, one can think of a number of other cases where the IAEA issued reports based on special requests by its members  and outside its mandate to provide oversight such as the reports: on the Syrian facility at Al Kibar bombed by the Israeli AF in September 2007; on the radiation risks from the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents; restitution of Iraq’s bombed nuclear research site; on the radiological situation in former nuclear test sites; on the former military nuclear facilities of the states that voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons (South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus); a series of probes by the IAEA on the use of depleted uranium in ammunition used in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kuwait and Kosovo by the US.

b)      What might be unprecedented though is that in all the cases mentioned above the event in question had already taken place whereas this is a request in anticipation of a future hypothetical possibility. Macmanus also raised that. There is also the possibility that the US will attack 3 alleged undeclared nuclear sites in Syria consistent with its efforts to reduce WMD capabilities in the country.  This could result in the unavoidable spread of nuclear materials.  So the question of IAEA mandate limits in this case is debatable.

c)      Finally, again according to the reports, a question was raised whether the IAEA has the technical capabilities to perform such a probe. All the precedents mentioned above point toward an answer in the affirmative. The technical issues are the same, or very similar, to say the least.
On Tuesday the Syrian envoy to the IAEA told the BoG that his country supports the Russian motion for a probe, reports AFP. The same piece hosts comments on the risks of bombing the Syrian MNSR by expert Robert Kelley of SIPRI. Kelley told AFP that the presence right next to the MSNR of a food irradiator using gamma sources probably stored in vaults on surface level represents a far greater danger if this compound is to be bombed.

Question: If the MSNR or a source is hit, either intentionally or accidentally, would Syria request IAEA technical assistance in remediating the “orphaned source? While the MNSR is an IAEA Safeguards Department issue they will have no information about the food irradiator next to the MNSR because it is not a nuclear materials problem.  This is the provenance of the Department of Technical Cooperation.  Will IAEA be able to bridge its internal gaps and provide an assessment on both risks? Finally, does the Agency’s Statute provide the mandate to do assessments of the consequences of possible military attacks against nuclear facilities under safeguards or other atomic energy-related sites?

Iran & Nuclear Safeguards

In his opening statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, Director General Yukiya Amano expressed his Agency’s desire to work more cooperatively with Iran. A new government and a new envoy to the IAEA have increased the likelihood of conciliation between the country and the IAEA. Amano said that the organization “remains committed to working constructively with Iran […] to resolve outstanding issues by diplomatic means” but that, “Given the nature and extent of credible information available to the Agency about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, it remains essential and urgent for Iran to engage with us on the substance of these concerns.”

In fact, Amano highlighted the issue when he told the Board that Iran’s continued refusal to provide the IAEA with an up-to-date design document for its IR-40 heavy water reactor currently under construction near the city of Arak. Despite protestations to the contrary, critics in the West believe that the reactor could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Still, an earlier statement by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, reported by Press TV, suggests the new regime’s growing willingness to compromise: “Although we deem the nuclear dossier concocted, we are ready to allay the West’s concerns on the basis of international laws and conventions.” Formal talks are scheduled to take place on September 27.

Question: Deja-vu, we’ve been here before; does the current distraction of the Obama administration by the tumbleweeds of internal and external forces sufficiently distract it to permit the Europeans to finally put some worthwhile goodies on the table  to bargain with – or if this is so, will Brussels fumble the ball – again?

Fukushima & Nuclear Safety

And the 2020 Olympics go to Tokyo! AFC quotes Japanese PM from his presentation before the members of the International Olympic Committee held this Saturday in Buenos Aires:

“Let me assure you the situation is under control. […] It has never done or will do any damage to Tokyo. […] You should read past the headlines and look at the facts. […] The contaminated water has been contained in an area of the harbour only 0.3 square kilometres big. […] There have been no health problems and nor will there be. I will be taking responsibility for all the programmes with regard to the plant and the leaks.”

Let’s hope Abe will stick to his word because last Wednesday, Japanese authorities warned that the radioactive contaminants in the water coming out of Fukushima NPP has reached fatal levels in specific areas, reports The Guardian. In an effort to quell the flow of this contaminated groundwater into the soil behind the plant, the government also announced plans to construct a mile-long ice wall beneath the plant, expected to be completed by the middle of 2015.

Spring-boarding off of Japan’s £200 million frozen-wall plan, Damian Carrington wrote an article criticizing the nuclear power industry for its safety gaffes and of the massive financial costs associated with disaster relief following such an atomic accident. Jeff Kingston, in a special for the Japan Times, also has choice words for the mishandling of cleanup detail, although his ire is directed more specifically at the Abe government and Tepco’s obfuscation of facts than at the nuclear enterprise as a whole.

The Question: So the Japanese government is planning ahead for dealing with Fukushima contingencies for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics while American and French officials get together to conceptualize new Grand Designs for new robust nuclear liability and nuclear safety regimes. In both cases the Fukushima accident is by definition the new model case. But how easy or effective or prudent is it to plan ahead based on a disaster that’s far from over, with new unanticipated incidents popping up regularly even two and a half years into this situation? 

North Korea

South Korea seems to be trying to hand its isolationist, northern neighbours the olive branch. A development suggesting a thawing in recent tensions is the reopening of the reopening of a military hot-line across the border. President Park Geun-hye has conveyed her willingness to assist the North in building infrastructure and interacting with international organizations. “If the South and the North build up trust in each other and denuclearization makes progress, I intend to provide support for North Korea to beef up infrastructure, such as communication, transportation and electricity (facilities), and to join international organizations,” Park said.

Question: What can we learn from history; what does the collapse of the U.S.- North Korean Agreed Framework in 2002 offer as a lesson for the way forward?


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