Egypt plans to build nuclear plants
CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt’s president announced plans Monday to build several nuclear power plants – the latest in a string of ambitious such proposals from moderate Arab countries. The United States immediately welcomed the plan, in a sharp contrast to what it called nuclear “cheating” by Iran.President Hosni Mubarak said the aim was to diversify Egypt’s energy resources and preserve its oil and gas reserves for future generations. In a televised speech, he pledged Egypt would work with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency at all times and would not seek a nuclear bomb.But Mubarak also made clear there were strategic reasons for the program, calling secure sources of energy “an integral part of Egypt’s national security system.”In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. would not object to the program as long as Egypt adhered to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines.”The problem has arisen, specifically in the case of Iran, where you have a country that has made certain commitments, and in our view and the shared view of many … (is) cheating on those obligations,” he said.”For those states who want to pursue peaceful nuclear energy … that’s not a problem for us,” McCormack said. “Those are countries that we can work with.”The United States accuses Iran of using the cover of a peaceful nuclear program to secretly work toward building a bomb, an allegation Iran denies. Iran asserts it has a right to peaceful nuclear power and needs it to meet its economy’s voracious energy needs.Iran’s program has prompted a slew of Mideast countries to announce plans of their own – in part simply to blunt Tehran’s rising regional influence.”A lot of this is political and strategic,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.Egypt is highly sensitive to the fact that Iran hopes to open its Bushehr nuclear plant next year, said Mohamed Abdel-Salam, director of the regional security program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.”(Iran’s) regional role, as well as Iran’s political use of the nuclear issue, have added to Egypt’s sensitivity,” he said. Other Arab countries’ recent nuclear announcements “added extra pressure on Egypt not to delay any more.”Jordan, Turkey and several Gulf Arab countries have announced in recent months that they are interested in developing nuclear power programs, and Yemen’s government signed a deal with a U.S. company in September to build civilian nuclear plants over the next 10 years.Algeria also signed a cooperation accord with the United States on civil nuclear energy in June, and Morocco announced a deal last week under which France will help develop nuclear reactors there.Despite the declarations of peaceful intentions, there are worries the countries could be taking the first steps toward a dangerous proliferation in the volatile Mideast.Such fears intensified when Israel launched a Sept. 6 airstrike against Syria, a country allied with Iran that the United States accuses of supporting terrorism.U.S. officials have been quoted in news reports as saying the strike targeted a North Korean-style structure that could have been used for the start of a nuclear reactor.Syria denies that it has a secret nuclear program, and says the building was an unused military facility.Israel has not officially commented on the raid or acknowledged carrying it out.But Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, this weekend criticized Israel and the U.S. for failing to provide the IAEA with any evidence backing up the claim of a Syrian nuclear program.Following a policy it calls “nuclear ambiguity,” Israel has never confirmed nor denied having a nuclear weapons program itself.Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at an Israeli nuclear plant, spent 18 years in prison after giving details of the country’s atomic program to a British newspaper in 1986. His information led many outside experts to conclude that Israel has the world’s sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.Egypt’s envoy to the United Nations, Magid Abdel Fattah, warned later Monday that Israel’s refusal to join IAEA’s Non-Proliferation Treaty endangers the entire Middle East.Because of Israel’s ambiguity, its nuclear installations are not subject to comprehensive guarantees and such a situation “threatens an arms race that jeopardizes security and stability of the region,” Fattah was quoted by the state MENA news agency as saying.Egypt first announced a year ago that it was seeking to restart a nuclear program that was publicly shelved in the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl.Mubarak offered no timetable Monday, but a year ago, Hassan Yunis, the minister of electricity and energy, said Egypt could have an operational nuclear power plant within 10 years.Egypt has conducted nuclear experiments for research purposes on a very small scale for the past four decades, at a reactor northeast of Cairo, but they have not included the key process of uranium enrichment, the IAEA says.Abdel-Salam said Egypt has extensively studied a site for a plant, at El-Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria, and predicted a facility could be built within three years.Outside experts were more conservative, with Wolfsthal saying a decade or longer was more likely. Egypt will almost certainly have to rely on extensive foreign help to build a plant, he said.—-Associated Press reporters Anna Johnson and Nadia abou el-Magd contributed to this report.