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IRAQ

Geneva nuclear deal ‘not yet in sight’: Tehran

Iran and world powers locked horns in intense nuclear talks in Geneva on Thursday, with Tehran saying a deal was not yet in sight in the third round of negotiations since Hassan Rouhani's election.

Geneva nuclear deal 'not yet in sight': Tehran
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second right) arrives in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Both sides, seeking to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear programme after a decade of rising tensions, stressed however that the talks were detailed, serious and constructive.
   
Raising the pressure, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in Washington lawmakers would move to impose new sanctions on Iran in December if there is no deal.
   
The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany —  the so-called P5+1 — want Iran to freeze parts of its nuclear programme for six months in return for relief from painful sanctions.
   
This hoped-for "first phase" deal would build trust and ease tensions while Iran and the six powers hammer out a final accord that ends once and for all fears that Tehran will get an atomic bomb.
   
Numerous attempts to resolve the standoff have failed over the last decade, but the election this year of Rouhani as Iranian president has raised hopes that this time a deal can be struck.
   
The proposed accord includes suspending uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity — close to weapons-grade — asl well as the removal of uranium stockpiles and tighter UN inspections.

For Israel, which refuses to rule out military action against Iran, the proposal does not go far enough.
   
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the complete and permanent dismantling of all of Iran's nuclear facilities, not just those enriching to 20 percent.
   
"Yesterday, Iran's supreme leader, (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei, said 'death to America, death to Israel', he said that Jews are not human beings," Netanyahu said in Moscow.
   
"The Iranians deny our past and speak time afer time of their commitment to wipe the state of Israel off the map."
   
But Daryl Kimball from the Arms Control Association said a complete dismantling might have been possible in 2005 when Iran had fewer than 300 centrifuges at one site.
   
"But it is not realistic now that Iran has 19,000 installed and 10,000 operating centrifuges at two sites," he said.

'Points of difference'

Iran's lead negotiator said after a second meeting between Foreign Minister Mohammad Jarad Zarif and P5+1 counterpart Catherine Ashton in Geneva that a deal was not yet in view.
   
But Abbas Araqchi added that the talks had been "serious" and had focused on remaining "points of difference."
   
Ashton's spokesman said that the talks had been "useful", with "intensive work continuing" and negotiations to resume later.
   
Similar talks two weeks ago came close to succeeding, prompting US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers to jet into Geneva ready to sign a deal.
   
Rumours were flying around Geneva on Thursday that Kerry and other top diplomats were gearing up to return to Switzerland but this has not been confirmed officially.
   
Last time they failed to agree after France insisted that a proposed deal did not go far enough in securing guarantees on Iran's uranium enrichment.
   
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that the text being debated with the Iranians on Thursday was "supported by all six" world powers.
   
"This deal will only be possible if it has a firm base," Fabius told France 2 television.

Frozen oil billions

Western powers say that the relief from painful sanctions that Iran would get in a deal would be minor, and that the main oil and banking sanctions would stay during this period.

Estimates on how much this is worth have varied wildly between $6 and $50 billion but the US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told CNN Thursday "the lower number is closer to what we're talking about."
   
The relief is likely to come from unblocking some of the $100 billion in Iranian reserves from oil sales, most of it frozen in bank accounts around the world.
   
If Rouhani, meanwhile, fails to secure quick and substantial relief from the sanctions, he risks losing the support of arch-conservatives and the supreme leader, experts say.
   
Another sticking point is Iran's insistence that its "right" to enrich uranium is recognized by the P5+1, even though this is not explicitly set out in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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NUCLEAR POWER

‘Truly historic’: Switzerland shuts down a nuclear power station for first time

One of four Swiss nuclear power stations was permanently disconnected on Friday after 47 years of service, marking a first in Switzerland, as the country begins to gradually phase out atomic energy.

'Truly historic': Switzerland shuts down a nuclear power station for first time
AFP

The decision to press the “off” button for good at the ageing Muhleberg plant in western Switzerland came amid soaring upkeep costs, and leaves the wealthy Alpine nation with three remaining nuclear plants in service.

“This is the first ever decommissioning of a power reactor in Switzerland,” Swiss energy company BKW, the plant operator, said in a statement.

Since it was commissioned in November 1972, the plant had pumped out some 130 billion kilowatts per hour of electricity, which is enough to cover the current electrical consumption of the Swiss capital Bern's some one million inhabitants for more than a century, BKW said.

The shutdown of the plant officially began at 12:30 pm (1130 GMT), with the decisive button-push transmitted live on Swiss television.

But the full decommissioning process is expected to take around 15 years, with reuse of the site likely possible from 2034.

'Truly historic'

“This is truly a historic day,” Swiss Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told public broadcaster RTS earlier this week.

“The halt of the Muhleberg nuclear plant provides opportunities (for growth) of hydraulic energy and solar power,” she said.

The plant had become the site of repeated protests amid a raging debate about nuclear safety in Switzerland that intensified following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Switzerland announced plans to phase out nuclear energy and close its four plants, but no clear timeline has been set.

In early 2013, Muhlberg's operating license was even extended indefinitely, but just months later, its operator announced its plans to shut it down.

But the decision to close the plant, which has covered around five percent of Switzerland's energy consumption, was not politically motivated, BKW said.

“This was a business decision,” the company told AFP in an email.

“If we had wanted to keep running our plant in the long term, we would have needed to invest heavily to respond to the technical requirements stipulated by the Swiss Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI),” it said.

But the closure does mark a clear first step in Switzerland's planned nuclear phase-out, leaving three plants in operation: Gosgen, Leibstadt and Beznau.

The latter houses two reactors, including one that turned 50 earlier this month, making it Europe's oldest functioning reactor and the third oldest in operation worldwide.

But despite their advanced age and Switzerland's stated ambition to gradually exit nuclear — which accounts for about a third of its current power generation — there are no immediate plans to shut down the remaining  reactors.

In a popular vote three years ago, the Swiss rejected a call to speed up the phaseout of the plants by decommissioning all reactors over the age of 45.

As a result, the reactors can run for as long as ENSI deems them safe, or for as long as their operators find it financially viable to invest in the required safety upgrades.

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