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JUNE 2000
ALGERIA
COVER STORY

A nuclear newcomer?

There have been some curious developments reported to have taken place in Algeria of late. Some of the reports are accurate, others are only half-truths and obfuscations. Nevertheless, it is clear there is real concern on Capitol Hill about what is happening along the south-western shores of the Mediterranean.

There have been some curious developments reported to have taken place in Algeria of late. Some of the reports are accurate, others are only half-truths and obfuscations. Nevertheless, it is clear there is real concern on Capitol Hill about what is happening along the south-western shores of the Mediterranean.

David Albright, president of Washington’s Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has expressed disquiet at the fact Algeria might soon have the capacity to produce plutonium, of a quality which could then be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Albright told The Middle East recent disclosures indicate China has been the principal supplier of nuclear technology to Algiers since the two countries signed a secret accord in 1983.

The agreement with Beijing made provision for the construction of the nuclear complex near Birine as well as the Es Salam reactor, a hot cell laboratory, and another facility for the production of radioisotopes.

A Spanish intelligence report discloses that Algeria has already concluded the second phase of its nuclear programme

It is significant that Es Salam is a heavy water reactor with 15mw capability. Such a plant, Albright confirmed, would have the capability to produce military-grade plutonium, which could then be used in the construction of a nuclear bomb. The facility was opened in 1993 and, according to expert US sources, Algeria’s atomic programme already exceeds its civil need, which was originally linked to domestic power production.

In addition to Chinese expertise, the North African state’s nuclear programme is also believed to have received Argentinian assistance, say US intelligence sources.

Meanwhile, a Spanish intelligence report discloses that Algeria has already concluded the second phase of its nuclear programme, involving the construction of the hot cell laboratory where it will be able to dismantle nuclear fuel produced from the reactor and is, therefore, just one step away from obtaining plutonium.

The third and final phase will consist of the construction of a radioisotope production laboratory with the capability to extract plutonium from the nuclear fuel first irradiated in the reactor before being dismantled in the hot cells.

Argentina originally sold Algeria the Nur research reactor in 1989. Although largely irrelevant from a military point of view, the move did commit Buenos Aires to a certain level of cooperation with the Arab state in future nuclear matters. There is also a direct link to developments at Es Salam, which the West finds disquieting. Although there have been some problems with construction, the facility should, according to Spanish intelligence sources, begin functioning ‘within months’.

What worries the Americans and the Spanish is despite the fact Algeria has renounced nuclear weapons, signed the identical Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that has been circulated among the major powers, and submitted voluntarily to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls, its embattled government is continuing with a nuclear programme, the full details of which are being concealed from monitoring authorities.

“In two years it might have the facilities necessary to produce military plutonium, the key element in nuclear weapons,” Albright told the specialist publication, Jane’s Terrorism & Security Monitor.

ISIS maintains this information is the basis of a report recently produced by the Spanish secret service, Cesid, and presented to the Madrid government.

Cesid was unequivocal about the development. It describes the clandestine programme as a danger and warns of the implications of tolerating an Algerian deception regarding military objectives.

There are several other Islamic states interested in what is happening in Algiers

Meanwhile, at a confidential Washington DC intelligence briefing last June, it was announced that the Algerian armed forces are in possession of a variety of delivery vehicles including bombers, missile launchers and Soviet-made rockets, all of which are quite capable of carrying nuclear weapons. It was further claimed that Algeria has access to underground missile testing sites are, before independence, France carried out its own nuclear weapons testing programme.

More ominously, say United States observers, there are several other Islamic states interested in what is happening in Algiers. The Sahara desert sites, it is argued by pundits, might be ideal for testing an Iranian-built atom bomb. The fact that Algerian relations with Teheran are cordial is a situation not lost on western military analysts.

The concern over Algeria’s nuclear aspirations follows the alarms triggered by thermonuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan last year. Some 10 years ago American satellites discovered evidence of the construction of the nuclear reactor at Es Salam, south of Algiers. That discovery led to the Algerian government — already enmeshed in a particularly brutal civil war — acceding to the NPT.

Currently, Algeria depends on outside suppliers of nuclear fuel

However, tensions arose when, as a consequence of IAEA inspections, it was discovered that three kilogrammes of enriched uranium, quantities of heavy water and a collection of natural uranium, supplied by China, had not been declared.

In theory, the Es Salam reactor has the capacity to produce up to three kilogrammes of plutonium annually and it would not be difficult for small quantities to be diverted for military purposes.

Currently, Algeria depends on outside suppliers of nuclear fuel. Its main limitation, the Cesid report states, is the country’s inability to undertake a military nuclear programme on its own. However, the discovery of uranium in the southern Hoggar mountain region puts Algeria in a special category.

Interestingly, all documentation related to the project has been classified as secret by the Algerian authorities, which, says the Spanish report, “is surprising considering the supposedly peaceful use to which Algeria’s nuclear programme was to have been put”.

In any event, Cesid argues, with Algeria’s abundant energy resources, especially natural gas, it has no need to choose the nuclear route for power production. The only conclusion the Spanish intelligence agency could reach — and which was contained in its confidential report — was that the development of Es Salam was undertaken with strictly military objectives. Significantly, Washington concurs.



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