Egypt failed to disclose nuclear facilities, material, and experiments to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), according to a Feb. 14 report from agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. There is no indication, however, that Egypt has a nuclear weapons program, and Cairo has either ceased the nuclear activities in question or placed them under IAEA monitoring.
The report labels Egypt’s reporting failures “a matter of concern” but adds that Egypt has cooperated with the investigation, and the agency’s findings so far are consistent with Egypt’s account of its nuclear program.
IAEA safeguards agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to disclose certain civilian nuclear activities. They also allow the agency to monitor the countries’ nuclear facilities to ensure the facilities are not used to produce nuclear weapons. Egypt acceded to the NPT in 1981.
Egypt used “small amounts” of nuclear material to conduct experiments related to producing plutonium and enriched uranium, according to the report. Irradiating uranium in nuclear reactors produces plutonium, which then can be separated from the spent nuclear fuel by “reprocessing” technology. Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope to produce both low-enriched uranium, which is used by most nuclear reactors, as well as highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU and plutonium are also the two types of fissile material used in nuclear weapons.
Egypt, however, does not appear to have made much progress on either front and does not possess either reprocessing or uranium-enrichment facilities. (See ACT, January/February 2005.)
Cairo explained its reporting failures in a Jan. 25 press statement, asserting that the government and the IAEA had “differing interpretations” of Egypt’s safeguards obligations and emphasizing that the country’s “nuclear activities are strictly for peaceful purposes.” Egypt pursued a nuclear weapons option in the 1960s, but its efforts did not advance far.
According to the report, the IAEA’s investigation began after examining “open source documents” published by current and former Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority officials that indicated undeclared nuclear activities. The agency first raised the issue with Egyptian officials in September 2004 and subsequently conducted several inspections of Egypt’s nuclear facilities. ElBaradei, an Egyptian national, obliquely referred to the investigation in a November statement to the agency’s Board of Governors.
The IAEA is still analyzing environmental samples from relevant Egyptian facilities, as well as otherwise verifying Egypt’s accounts of its nuclear activities, the report says.
The agency is also investigating whether Egypt received assistance from a uranium-enrichment technology procurement network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan, a diplomat in Vienna familiar with the investigation told Arms Control Today Feb. 19. The Egypt probe is part of a broader inquiry into whether a number of other countries—Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria—were involved in the network, the diplomat said. The network’s known customers include Iran, Libya, and North Korea.
ElBaradei said in a Feb. 4 interview with Arms Control Today that Khan’s network may have had additional “satisfied or unsatisfied customers,” but he did not name any specific countries.
The IAEA report contains no evidence that Egypt received any assistance from the Khan network. Press reports, as well as U.S. and Israeli officials, have named other countries as possible customers of Khan’s network, but the publicly available evidence is thin.
ElBaradei’s report does not provide specific dates for all of Egypt’s nuclear experiments but does say that some nuclear activities took place “between 15 and 40 years ago.”
The report states that Egypt conducted uranium-conversion experiments before 1982 but does not provide an exact date. Converting uranium oxide into other uranium compounds is a key step in the uranium-enrichment process.
Egypt failed to report that it had produced “small amounts” of uranium compounds, including uranium tetrafluoride, to the IAEA. Converting uranium tetrafluoride into uranium hexafluoride is the last step to producing feedstock for uranium enrichment. Although Arms Control Today previously reported that Egypt had experimented with uranium hexafluoride, the country apparently did not do so.
The equipment used in the conversion processes has been “largely dismantled,” the report says.
Egypt also failed to include both imported and domestically produced nuclear material in its 1982 initial declaration to the IAEA, according to the report. The imported material included 67 kilograms of uranium tetrafluoride and approximately 9 kilograms of thorium compounds.
Although no nuclear plants currently use thorium, it can be irradiated to produce uranium-233, which can also be theoretically used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.
Egypt also failed to declare that it had imported and produced a total of 3 kilograms of uranium metal. Uranium metal is used as the explosive core in some nuclear weapons, but the metal Egypt produced could not be used for that purpose.
Egypt used its two research reactors, which are under IAEA safeguards, to irradiate “small amounts of natural uranium” between 1990 and 2003, conducting a total of 16 experiments, the reports says. Egypt also irradiated thorium in one of its reactors. Egypt dissolved the irradiated material but did not extract any uranium or plutonium.
Dissolving irradiated nuclear material is a key step in separating fissile material from spent nuclear fuel.
According to ElBaradei’s report, Egypt conducted “similar experiments” between 1982 and 1988, as well as before 1982, but Egyptian officials have not been able to locate the relevant documentation. The “continuing” irradiation experiments will now be under agency safeguards, the report says. The radioisotopes that could be produced by such experiments potentially have a number of civilian uses, including medical treatment.
Egypt also imported nuclear fuel rods containing enriched uranium to conduct experiments related to plutonium separation, the report says. Egypt did not report either the material or the experiments, which occurred prior to 1982, to the IAEA.
ElBaradei’s report also states that Egypt contracted with a “foreign company” in the late 1970s to build a pilot plant for conducting experiments involving the separation of plutonium and uranium from irradiated reactor fuel. Egypt tested the facility in 1987 with domestically produced nuclear material, but Cairo declared neither the tests nor the material to the IAEA, the report says. Egypt was unable to complete the facility, which is now being used for an unrelated project.
Additionally, the IAEA is also analyzing Egypt’s explanation for “traces” of nuclear material found in IAEA environmental samples taken from Egyptian hot cells. Hot cells are shielded rooms useful for separating plutonium. The IAEA first inquired about the sample results in 2001. Egypt responded in 2003, telling the agency that the particles came from contaminated reactor water.
ElBaradei’s report also notes that Cairo failed to disclose relevant information about its nuclear facilities. Egypt failed to declare the pilot plant for plutonium and uranium-separation experiments, as well as failed to provide design information for a new facility under construction. The latter facility is to be used for separating radioisotopes from enriched uranium, which is to be irradiated in one of Egypt’s research reactors. Cairo should have notified the IAEA in 1997 of its decision to build the facility, according to the report.