Cairo worries as IAEA probes enriched uranium find

Egyptian diplomat casts doubt on authenticity of report in what could be beginning escalation of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Uranium 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Uranium 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
VIENNA — Egypt fears being grouped with the likes of Iran and Syria if a UN investigation into traces of highly enriched uranium found in the country isn't brought to a swift end, according to what officials describe as a confidential report from the country's nuclear agency.
The particles — enriched close to the levels required to arm nuclear missiles — have been under investigation since being detected by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2007 and 2008. Egypt, a US ally in the Middle East, has said the particles originated from abroad and were inadvertently imported, but the agency is unsatisfied with that answer.
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The IAEA first disclosed that it was probing Egypt in May 2009, in a restricted report obtained by the AP. The reports said traces of low-enriched uranium also were found at the site — Inshas, northeast of Cairo, where Egypt's two small research reactors are located.
Both high- and low-enriched uranium can be used to make radio isotopes, which have applications in medicine and scientific research.
The latest report, shared in part with The Associated Press, seemed to reflect a growing sense that Yukiya Amano, who replaced Mohamed ElBaradei in December as IAEA chief, has less tolerance than his predecessor for nations under nuclear scrutiny that use delaying tactics to undermine investigations.
A senior diplomat familiar with IAEA probes of all three countries said that the implications of the find in Egypt remain worrying, because they could indicate past undeclared experiments with technology that could be used in a weapons program.
Still it is unclear how old the material is. If the traces were unknowingly imported on containers with radio isotopes, as Cairo claims, and they originate from decades ago, then the IAEA is likely to deem the case closed.
Iran and Syria, in contrast will remain high priorities. The agency is trying to persuade both to stop stonewalling its efforts follow up on concrete intelligence that they are trying to hide attempts to develop nuclear weapons programs — suspicions Iran and Syria deny.
Amano has been more directly critical of both Iran and Syria than ElBaradei, a stance that apparently stoked Egyptian worry.
The report aims to "calculate the potential damage to Egypt of continued IAEA investigation into the Egyptian nuclear program," says an excerpt. Amano may not take the "fairly lenient" approach of ElBaradei, says another passage, adding: "Was it a mistake not to report the activity to the IAEA in the first place and to offer unsatisfactory answers?
"It is vital to prevent any comparison to Iran and Syria in the international area and every effort should be done to convince the IAEA to finally close the Egyptian dossier."
An official from an IAEA member nation said the report dates from September and was drawn up under the supervision of Mohammed Taha al Qalali, head of Egypt's Atomic Energy Authority.
He and the senior diplomat asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
Ehab Fawzy, Egypt's ambassador to Austria and its chief representative to the IAEA, said he doubts the report is genuine, adding the premise that Amano was tougher on Egypt than ElBaradei was wrong.

Egypt was already the subject of an earlier probe launched after disclosures in 2004 that it failed to report nuclear experiments and related activities that could potentially be used for either nuclear civilian or weapons programs.
In a report published the following year, the agency described the work as small-scale, saying the programs took place decades ago and did not appear to be part of an attempt to make nuclear weapons. Still, it faulted Egypt for keeping them secret, despite obligations to report them to the IAEA.