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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kiriyenko Touts Siberia Uranium Plant

Itar-TassKiriyenko and Sergei Ivanov speaking to reporters after a Federal Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in March.
ANGARSK, Irkutsk Region -- Deep in a Siberian pine forest lies President Vladimir Putin's answer to a quandary: How to cash in on global demand for nuclear fuel without giving countries the technology to build bombs.

Russia is setting up an international uranium enrichment center at a Soviet-built plant just outside the settlement of Angarsk, more than 5,100 kilometers east of Moscow.

Putin has proposed the center as a way to allow countries -- such as Iran -- the means of developing civilian nuclear power without handing them the technology to make nuclear weapons.

Response so far has been modest, with only Kazakhstan actually signing up. But during a journalists' visit to the plant, a top-secret establishment in Soviet times, Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko said a host of countries were showing an interest in buying a stake in the center -- though apparently not yet Iran.

"Any country in the world can participate in the international center, buy some shares and get guaranteed services for enrichment, and they are guaranteed to get some profits from the idea too," Kiriyenko said. "But they will not get access to one thing -- Russian enrichment technology. And that is entirely correct as that is dual-use technology."

Holding a stake in the center would mean a country could secure a supply of enriched uranium that would provide the fuel rods to power its nuclear plants. It would not know the technological process by which it had been produced, however.

Demand for nuclear fuel has soared as countries seek to develop atomic power stations as an alternative to traditional fuels.

But the world's official nuclear powers -- also the biggest sellers of atomic materials -- are trying to stop the spread of nuclear technology to states that could try to build atomic weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear program.

Russia says the Angarsk plant could ease the suspicions of the United States and Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Tehran, which says its nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes, has shown little interest as yet, however.

A bust of Lenin and a hammer and sickle emblazoned on the main building's facade are a reminder of its Soviet past. Until quite recently, the Angarsk Chemical Electrolysis Plant, set deep in the forest, was off-limits to foreigners -- a harking back to times when it was a strategic facility in the Soviet Union's then-secret nuclear energy program.

Armed guards block approaches to the plant where the center is housed. Special services patrol a double perimeter fence around the nondescript brick-built complex. Inside are laboratories stocked with up-to-date foreign equipment. Dozens of scientists pore over computers to test uranium enrichment.

The center has attracted only Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Armenia, and only Kazakhstan has actually signed up.

"There are a host of other countries that are looking at cooperating in the center, but it is not my place to name them," Kiriyenko said.

The international outcry over Iran's nuclear ambitions provided the accelerator for establishing the center.

But Tehran appears to have balked at renouncing its right to an enrichment cycle -- one of Russia's initial conditions for participation.

Russia may now have to backpedal on that condition, said Anton Khlopkov, executive director of Moscow's Center for Policy Studies. "Russia understands the concerns of a lot of countries about renouncing rights to their own enrichment program at some time in the future, and so I sense Russia does not plan to be so strict in demanding that," Khlopkov said.