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(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel does not consider Cairo's newly declared nuclear ambitions a military threat, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, a day after an Egyptian cabinet minister said his country would soon begin building nuclear power plants. "It's not similar in any form or manner to what the Iranians are trying to do," the prime minister said.
Olmert said Egypt's proposed program fell into the civilian category, and that he was inclined to believe that Egypt would be "ready to submit itself to the real, genuine effective control" of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would ensure that the program not develop "in the military direction."
Egypt's Minister of Electricity and Energy Hassan Younes told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper on Sunday that within 10 years of the project's launch, Egypt would have an operational nuclear power plant.
The Egyptian cabinet had also set up a ministerial committee to "speed up implementing the nuclear alternative," said Magdi Radhi, a government spokesman. He said the committee would work out technical details and financing of the project.
"This is an urgent matter," he told the state-owned Middle East news agency.
Last Thursday, President Hosni Mubarak called for Egypt to revive plans for a nuclear program that were publicly shelved in the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl.
"We must increase our exploitation of new energy sources, including the peaceful uses of nuclear energy," Mubarak told a conference of his ruling National Democratic Party.
While Olmert was sanguine, Dr. Guy Bechor, head of Middle Eastern Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, expressed concern over a widening drive for nuclear power in the Middle East.
The threat posed by Iran's program was not limited to the danger of a nuclear attack, Bechor said. "A major threat is from other Arab leaders who will copy Iran to gain publicity and legitimacy."
Mubarak was attempting just that, said Bechor. "When someone tries to copy Ahmadinejad with a nuclear weapon, eventually something will not be controlled properly and this will create a major danger in the region," he said.
Egypt plans to build a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant at el-Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast, Younes said. Its construction cost is estimated at $1.5 billion and the government will seek foreign investment for the project, the electricity minister added.
Egypt already produces some 84b. kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, some of which is exported to neighboring countries. But Egypt's demand for electricity increases by an average of 6 to 7 percent each year.
The independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported Sunday that the government planned to build three nuclear power stations with a total capacity of 1,800 megawatts. It quoted unnamed officials as saying the construction of the three plants would be completed by 2020.
In recent years, there have been reports that Egypt had sold the site to entrepreneurs to develop as a tourist resort. But since April 2005, there have been conflicting reports of negotiations between Egypt and Russia to build a nuclear power station.
Egyptian nuclear experts hailed the government's move.
"This is a landmark decision in Egypt's history," said Muhammad Abdel Salam, Egypt's top nuclear expert and a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
"Egypt has all the potential to launch this program," said Ali el-Sa'eidy, a former electricity and power minister.
In February 2005, the IAEA disclosed that it was investigating Egypt's nuclear activities. It concluded that Egypt had conducted atomic research for as long as four decades, but that the research did not aim to develop nuclear weapons and did not include uranium enrichment.
The UN nuclear watchdog was looking into rumors that Egypt had aimed to develop an independent nuclear fuel cycle at its two research reactors.
Egypt has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has long called for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
On Thursday, US Ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone said the United States was ready to supply technology to Cairo if it decided to develop a peaceful nuclear program.
"There is no comparison between Iran and Egypt in this field. Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but using nuclear power for peaceful means is totally different matter," Ricciardone told an Egyptian TV station.
Ryan Nadel contributed to this report.