Sarkozy hosts conference on nuclear energy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy opens a two-day conference on harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful use on Monday. Around 60 nations, including Syria and Libya, will be attending. The meeting comes at a sensitive time for nuclear diplomacy.


AFP - Nations hungry for new energy sources gather this week in France, which sees a blooming market for its big nuclear energy companies but is also anxious to curb the spread of atomic weapons.

In response to growing demand for renewable fuels, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will welcome delegates from Syria, former pariah Libya, and about 60 other countries on Monday for a two-day conference on access to nuclear power.

"The peaceful use of nuclear power should not be confined to a handful of states that already hold the technology," said a French government statement announcing the talks.

France, the world's second-biggest nuclear power producer, "has expressed its willingness to assist any country wishing to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes which fully abide by their non-proliferation obligations."

The conference comes at a sensitive time for nuclear diplomacy. France is leading efforts for fresh UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear programme, which some world powers suspect is aimed at developing an atomic weapon.

Syria has been investigated by the UN nuclear watchdog (IAEA) on allegations that it was building a covert nuclear reactor at a site bombed in 2007 by Israel -- another guest at the conference, which will be presided over by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano.

Libya committed in 2004 to scrapping its nuclear programme in order to normalise its broken ties with the United States and other powers. The two join the conference alongside emerging economies China, Russia, Brazil and others.

A French official who asked not to be named said the conference aimed to respond to widespread "renewed interest in civil nuclear energy" by countries and "the need to accompany them on this route in a responsible manner."

"A growing number of states are considering civil nuclear power to meet their energy needs, in a context of spiralling fossil fuel prices and the drive to combat climate change," the government statement said.

No official representation is due from Iran, nor from North Korea, whose totalitarian regime has been condemned by world powers for carrying out weapons tests and is at the centre of delicate disarmament efforts by world powers.

The hundreds of ministers, officials and business leaders will discuss how to transfer nuclear technology securely between countries without it being diverted for use in weapons.

"The conference will not be a trade show," another French official insisted.

Rather, the government statement added, it aims "to promote the peaceful and responsible use of nuclear power" and allow companies to meet policy-makers and regulators.

"There are commercial stakes but that is not the main thing," said Serge Gas, an official at the Nuclear Energy Agency, part of the OECD economic grouping.

"The question is how to transfer the know-how correctly to all these countries that want to get into nuclear energy," he told AFP.

World leaders are due to discuss similar security issues in Washington next month.

A diplomatic source in Paris said the French meeting was "complementary" to the US talks, addressing efforts for nuclear disarmament alongside prospective growth in the civil nuclear power sector.

Home to big energy firms such as Areva, France has valuable nuclear expertise and produces more electricity from its plants than any country apart from the United States, according to the World Nuclear Association.

But competition is heating up. In a humiliation for Areva, French companies lost out in December to a South Korean-led consortium for a 20-billion-dollar contract to build four nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates.

The association estimates that more than 450 new reactors are scheduled to be built worldwide by 2030 -- a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

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