International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are investigating evidence of past undeclared nuclear activities in Taiwan and Egypt, U.S. officials and sources close to the agency have confirmed. Although both countries are known to have had nuclear weapons programs in the past, there is no indication that either country is currently conducting nuclear weapons activity.
According to press reports that emerged in late 2004, the agency found evidence that both countries engaged in activities involving plutonium. Plutonium, when separated from spent nuclear reactor fuel, can provide fuel for specialized types of nuclear reactors but also explosive material for nuclear weapons.
The agency also found evidence that Egypt engaged in activities involving the production of material useful for a uranium-enrichment program. Highly enriched uranium can also be used in nuclear weapons.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei obliquely referred to the Taiwan and Egypt investigations in a Nov. 25 statement to the agency’s board of governors. Although the precise details of the IAEA’s discoveries are unknown, ElBaradei attributed the agency’s success generally to the “effectiveness of the tools of strengthened safeguards and the additional protocol.” ElBaradei cited the agency’s success in detecting undeclared nuclear activities in South Korea as an example. (See ACT, December 2004.)
IAEA safeguards agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to allow the agency to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities in order to ensure they are not diverted to military use. Taiwan considers itself bound by the NPT, which it ratified in 1970, even though it is not recognized by the UN system (including the IAEA) as a sovereign state. Egypt acceded to the treaty in 1981.
NPT member states and the IAEA began to improve agency safeguards during the mid-1990s after secret nuclear weapons programs in Iraq and North Korea exposed weaknesses in existing safeguards. This effort had two components: strengthening safeguards at declared nuclear facilities and development of the additional protocol. The former includes measures, such as environmental sampling, that the agency can implement under existing safeguards agreements.
Additional protocols augment the agency’s inspection authority and require NPT parties to provide substantially more information to the IAEA regarding their nuclear-related activities and facilities.
Although the IAEA does not officially recognize Taiwan, the agency conducts inspections there in accordance with the additional protocol, which Egypt has not signed.
According to an Oct.13 Associated Press report, the IAEA has found evidence that Taiwan conducted plutonium-separation experiments until the mid-1980s. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher told reporters the next day that the agency is “looking into these questions to evaluate Taiwan’s [nuclear] history.”
It is unclear whether the reports, if true, would provide new revelations about Taiwan’s plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. Taipei began the program during the 1960s but ended it in the 1970s in response to U.S. pressure.
Boucher said that Taiwan “worked under IAEA supervision and safeguards on plutonium at some point” during the 1970s. Whether Taipei ever separated plutonium, however, is unclear. According to declassified State Department documents, the United States had concerns in the mid-1970s that Taipei was secretly separating plutonium. Taiwan reportedly began building an additional facility that could separate plutonium in 1987 but again stopped because of U.S. diplomatic pressure.
Washington continues to oppose Taiwanese reprocessing, a State Department official told Arms Control Today Oct. 18. Taiwan operates three nuclear power plants but does not possess reprocessing facilities.
The State Department official cautioned that the timeframe described in the initial reports might be inaccurate, saying that it is possible the reported experiments took place during the 1970s.
The deputy chairperson for Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council denied that Taipei ever conducted plutonium-separation experiments, the Associated Press reported Oct. 15.
Confirming a Nov. 5 Associated Press report, another State Department official told Arms Control Today that IAEA inspectors have found “traces” of plutonium in Egypt. The agency found that “hot cell activity” had taken place, according to a different Vienna-based source close to the IAEA. Hot cells are shielded rooms useful for separating plutonium.
Egypt is known to possess hot cells but not nuclear power plants or reprocessing facilities. Egypt also has two research reactors. Cairo pursued a nuclear weapons program in the 1960s, but it made relatively little progress; its efforts waned during the following decade.
The official downplayed the reports, saying that there could be many benign explanations for the particles.
The Vienna source also said that Egypt had experimented with uranium compounds. These experiments included uranium hexafluoride, which is a key material in uranium-enrichment programs. Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of the U-235 isotope, a process that can produce either nuclear reactor fuel or weapons material.
ElBaradei told the IAEA board that cases “will likely continue to surface, in which the Agency finds that states have not in the past fulfilled all of their reporting obligations.” An IAEA official told Arms Control Today Dec. 9 that “there could well be other cases of bad housekeeping and possibly technical failures or worse” dating back to the 1970s and 1980s.
ElBaradei seemed to downplay the significance of any new revelations, stating that most cases are “failures” that can be discussed in the IAEA’s annual safeguards implementation report. Cases where the IAEA finds that “proliferation concerns exist or concealment is involved…will be brought to the attention” of the IAEA board, he added.