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. UN nuclear watchdog investigating Egypt for atomic experiments
VIENNA (AFP) Jan 05, 2005
The UN nuclear watchdog is investigating Egypt for small, undeclared nuclear experiments that could be related to atomic weapons development, diplomats said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit swiftly denied that his country had done anything counter to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The experiments involved making uranium metal, which could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium, and carrying out the first steps of uranium enrichment by making uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), one diplomat said.

But another diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agencysaid no uranium was actually enriched, referring to the process that makes nuclear fuel but what can also be the explosive core of atomic bombs.

The experiments were "small stuff, nothing and goes back in history all the way to the 1950s," he said.

"These are small sporadic experiments which have been done over the years. This is not Iran, this is not South Korea," he added, referring to Iran which the IAEA is investigating on US charges that it is secretly developing nuclear weapons and South Korea, which has admitted to carrying out rogue nuclear experiments.

Most of the work was apparently done before 1982, when Egypt signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, opening itself from that point on to inspections, the diplomat said.

"There may have been a nuclear weapons program but 50 years ago when Nasser was the president," he added.

The IAEA was tipped off by articles published by Egyptian scientists and has been investigating Egypt intensively since last summer, he said, adding that the watchdog was currently evaluating samples gathered in Egypt in December and should be able to say more in about two weeks.

The Egyptians have not tried to hide what they did and are cooperating, the diplomat said.

But the foreign minister insisted that the accusations were "baseless". "Egypt respects its signature of the NPT," said Abul Gheit.

Hidden nuclear work by Egypt is a charged issue since IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is Egyptian and has been accused by some diplomats of going soft on Iran and favoring Arab states, charges ElBaradei vehemently denies.

The United States wants ElBaradei replaced at the crucial Vienna-based agency since it believes he is not being tough enough on Iran, diplomats said.

It opposes ElBaradei winning a third term as IAEA director general later this year.

ElBaradei on Wednesday refused to comment on Egypt.

But he did say: "I can't really speak on any specific country other than to tell you that because of the strengthening of safeguards we have seen failures in certain countries to report certain activities.

"This is something we are going systematically through in many places to make sure that every ounce of nuclear material has been reported adequately. We are applying the same absolute standard of professionalism everywhere without disctinction," he told AFP, referring to what are often technical violations of international safeguards rather than safeguards breaches.

"Should we discover at any time that there is a proliferation concern or implications of a weapon program we will obviously promptly report this to the (IAEA) board (of governors)," ElBaradei said.

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