CAIRO, Egypt—Determined to lead the Arab world into the nuclear club, Egypt is working on a nuclear energy program intended to reduce the country's dependency on oil.
The program, announced last week by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is expected to cost as much as $2 billion and will take more than a decade before the plants produce electricity. While other Arab nations also are looking into nuclear research and development, Egypt already has two low-level reactors, a half century of research and the remains of a comprehensive plan that was scrapped after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986.
Egypt is looking for alternative power sources because of the rising cost of oil and its increasing energy needs. The government estimates that oil reserves in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, will be depleted within 20 years unless new oil fields are discovered.
Egypt has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Countries that sign the treaty agree not to produce or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. They also accept safeguards meant to prevent the diversion of spent nuclear fuel to weapons production. Egypt also has agreed to inspections by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Egypt has two outdated, research-level reactors in Inshas, 38 miles north of Cairo. Energy Minister Hassan Younis told a state-backed newspaper this month that the government is in talks over how to finance the construction of a 1,000-megawatt power plant that would cost as much as $2 billion. Egypt also plans to build three power stations, each producing 600 megawatts, in the north coastal region of Dabaa.
Nuclear development is a point of pride for Egypt. Arab nations are caught between two less-than-friendly rivals when it comes to nuclear development: Israel and Iran.
They complain that Israel was allowed to amass an undeclared nuclear arsenal, while Muslim nations fall under strict scrutiny for research into even peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Arab governments are equally wary of Iran's Shiite Muslim theocracy, which they blame for sidelining the Sunni populations of Iraq and Lebanon.
"It's hard to be in a region where one country owns nuclear weapons and another is developing them while claiming it won't use them," said Wael el Assad, nuclear specialist at the Arab League. "This security deficiency is unacceptable to states."
But unlike Iran, Egypt, led by Western-backed Mubarak, has U.S. support for the proposed program. That wasn't the case for other Arab leaders who delved into nuclear activities: Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's main reactor was destroyed by Israel, while Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi renounced his program in hopes of getting removed from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.
"We are prepared to provide technical know-how for peaceful nuclear energy to friendly nations such as Egypt, with whom we share deep cooperation," Francis Ricciardone, U.S. ambassador to Egypt, told Egyptian television. "There is no comparison between Iran and Egypt, since Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, that is something different."
Iran says its nuclear program is also strictly for energy, but the IAEA has said Iran hasn't cooperated sufficiently so that its claim can be independently proved.
Egypt hasn't yet disclosed details of its nuclear plans.
It could purchase nuclear fuel from abroad to power its reactors and sell the spent fuel back to the supplier, so that there would be no possibility of using it for weapons production. Alternatively, Egypt could develop the capacity to produce its own fuel. The same production method, at a higher level, can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Egypt, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates are the only Arab nations currently on file with the IAEA as pursuing atomic programs as an alternative to traditional energy sources such as oil and natural gas. Algeria has two research reactors, but isn't actively pursuing nuclear capabilities, according to regional experts.
"Some Arab countries are showing interest in nuclear energy for generating electricity, water purification, and in other fields also, as health and agriculture," said Mahmoud Nasreddin, director of the Tunisia-based Arab Atomic Energy Agency.
In Egypt, however, there are murmurs that the timing of the announcement has less to do with renewable energy and more to do with positioning Mubarak's son to succeed his father as president. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party adopted the resolution to pursue a nuclear energy program at the party's annual convention last week.
"The whole world—I don't want to say all, but many developing countries—have proposed and started to execute the issue of alternative energy," Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, said at the conference. "It is time for Egypt to put forth this proposal for discussion about its future energy policies, the issue of alternative energy, including nuclear energy as one of the alternatives."
Critics of the government, led by the powerful Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood, called the proposal "a big show" intended to bolster support for the younger Mubarak. Since 2002, Gamal Mubarak has served as head of the party's influential policies committee and has been crafting his image as a reformist.
Though both Mubaraks have repeatedly denied that Gamal has any intention of becoming president, his frequent public appearances and his rising influence within the NDP are convincing Egyptians he will take over after his father.
"This talk of nuclear program is only to grab the world's attention and point it at Gamal Mubarak," said Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
(El Naggar is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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