Egypt’s Budding Nuclear Program

Argentina is building a nuclear reactor in Egypt that will give Cairo its first access to bomb quantities of fissile material, possibly enough plutonium to make one nuclear weapon per year. Although Egypt’s nuclear program is now open to international inspection, there is reason for Cairo’s foreign suppliers to proceed with caution: High-level Egyptian officials continue to say that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is reason enough for Arab nations to build their own atomic bombs. In addition, Cairo is now building ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Amre Mousa is adamant that Israel should be blamed if other Mideast nations build the bomb: “If there is a nuclear program in Israel, then we can blame nobody and no country if they want to acquire the same…this is an invitation to an arms race–a very, very serious and dangerous policy.” The Foreign Minister’s remarks were made this summer at a gathering of Mideast experts and journalists in Washington, DC. No one at the meeting brought up the fact that virtually all Arab states, including Egypt, Libya and Syria, are members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which obliges them not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Egypt joined the Treaty in 1981, but is now one of its leading critics. In 1995, Egypt strongly opposed efforts to extend the Treaty indefinitely. In April of last year, Amre Mousa argued that Israel’s failure to adhere to the NPT means the treaty is “incapable of safeguarding Egypt” and has created “an extremely dangerous situation” in the Middle East.

Egypt’s nuclear history

At the center of Egypt’s nuclear program is the Inshas Nuclear Research Center in Cairo. Inshas hosts a 2-megawatt, Soviet-supplied research reactor that started in 1961 and runs on ten-percent-enriched uranium fuel. The reactor was shut down for renovation during the 1980s, but started up again in 1990. According to Egypt’s Atomic Energy Agency, the reactor should serve Egypt’s research needs for the next ten years, by which time Egypt hopes to have completed a larger research reactor to replace it.

Egypt also runs a number of other research facilities at Inshas. These include a small French-supplied hot cell complex for plutonium extraction research, the Middle East’s first industrial electronic accelerator, and a pilot nuclear fuel factory, completed in 1987, used to process natural uranium mined in Egypt. In addition, Egypt plans to build a larger fuel fabrication plant, reportedly with help from Germany.

Egypt’s expanded nuclear activity has raised some eyebrows in Israel. In 1990, the Israeli press reported that Egypt was cooperating with Pakistan, Iraq and Argentina to build a plutonium-producing reactor for nuclear weapons. Argentina later revealed that it was preparing to supply a 20-MWt research reactor to Egypt under international inspection, though Argentina faced competition from other bidders, including the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., and France’s nuclear giant, Framatome.

By September 1992, Egypt had signed a contract with Invap, Argentina’s leading nuclear organization, to build a 22-megawatt research reactor at Inshas. According to statements by an official at Argentina’s embassy in Washington, DC, construction began in March 1993. In 1995, Egypt’s Rose al-Yusuf’ magazine reported that Egypt’s Minister of Electricity and Energy, Mahim Abazah, had confirmed that a shipment of supplies was en route from Argentina in April, and that the reactor would be completed in 1997. Egyptian officials still expect the reactor to start operation next year.

As Cairo was making up its mind about which type of research reactor to buy, U.S. and Canadian officials reportedly steered Egypt away from Chinese models. In exchange for giving up Chinese imports, Egypt was reportedly promised help from the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and the U.S. Bechtel company to study the feasibility of building power reactors in Egypt. The industry trade newsletter, Nucleonics Week, reported in September 1992 that the AECL-Bechtel study found that only 30 percent of a Canadian-style power reactor could be locally produced in Egypt.

Egypt still hopes to import power reactors. Egyptian officials have talked since the early 1980s about building up to eight 1,000-MWe reactors to supply up to 40 percent of Egypt’s electricity needs. By mid-1985, three international supplier groups had bid to build the first two reactors: one group led by Germany’s Kraftwerk Union, a second Franco-Italian group led by Framatome, and a third headed by Westinghouse of the United States. The reactors would be sited at El-Dabaa, outside Alexandria, and would be owned and operated by Egypt’s Nuclear Power Plants Authority. But as the Risk Report went to press, the Egyptian government had not announced the award of any contract.

Uranium processing

Egypt has also been busy surveying its uranium ore resources. Cairo would like to develop its own ability to make uranium fuel for nuclear reactors. Egypt’s Nuclear Materials Authority has directed uranium exploration to concentrate on four areas in the eastern desert: Gabal Gattar, El Missikat, El Erediya and Um Ara. A new uranium-bearing area, Gabal Kadabora, has been discovered in the central eastern desert and is now under evaluation. In addition, the Nuclear Materials Authority is constructing a pilot scale plant to extract uranium from phosphoric acid. Cairo has reportedly signed contracts with Australia, Canada and Niger to buy mining technology and for help in processing uranium ore.