Egypt’s Nuclear Politics

By Egle Murauskaite – Before the second round of Egypt’s presidential election was held, a curious Egyptian announcement stated that the country’s plans to construct a 1,000MW nuclear power plant – frozen following the revolutionary events of 2011 – have been revived. While Egypt has the right to a full nuclear cycle under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) it has consistently promoted regional nuclear disarmament for over thirty years. With the international community gradually coming to terms with nuclear (though not nuclear-armed) Iran, Egypt could be looking to increase the stakes in the upcoming 2012 Conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone, potentially pursuing a policy of nuclear ambiguity.

In fact, such nuclear ambiguity is nothing new in Egyptian nuclear diplomacy. Up until the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt was aggressively advancing its nuclear infrastructure and harbouring nuclear weapons ambitions – the investments have subsequently stopped and the weapons program was abandoned. In 1968, Egypt signed the NPT, but delayed ratification until 1981 (as a bargaining tactic to induce Israeli cooperation on nuclear disarmament which failed), and in 1974 Egypt and Iran submitted a resolution to the UN General Assembly, calling for a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. Over the years a number of Egyptian officials and clerics have made statements regarding the country’s nuclear aspirations. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak famously said that “if the time comes when we need nuclear weapons, we will not hesitate.”

Egypt’s traditional rhetoric of nuclear ambiguity has been less than credible. Historically, strong relations with the United States, as well as highly demanding financial and technological aspects of a weapons program, have constrained Egypt. Already in 1995, its threats not to sign the indefinite extension of the NPT were taken with a high degree of skepticism, not to mention Egypt’s recent threats to withdraw from the treaty if the 2012 Conference fails. Egypt’s decision to expand its nuclear energy program could certainly be one way to add teeth to its nuclear ambiguity claim. Such a move would also serve as a not-so-friendly reminder of the urgency of the WMD-free zone.

Naturally, there is always an argument to be made about the country’s growing energy needs. However, given the tense atmosphere surrounding the nuclear issue, Cairo is very well aware of the political ripple effects that would most likely ensue should there be any departures from the status quo. The drama surrounding the Iranian nuclear standoff has sensitized the international audience to such an extent that the slightest hint of posturing by any regional state is likely to cause alarm.

Like many other countries in the region, Egypt started its nuclear energy program under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, with the first 2MW research reactor constructed by the Soviet Union over 1954-1961 in Inshas. Its second (22.5MW open pool) research reactor was built in 1992-1998 under a contract with Argentina. The research reactor while producing only small amount of plutonium, with the hot cells, could have provided Egypt with the initial basis for a nuclear weapons program. Egypt certainly possesses substantial expertise to advance a nuclear program, with over 1,400 trained scientists, 2,300 technical staff, and a support staff of around 1,300.

Egypt’s nuclear program has already come under IAEA scrutiny over compliance issues. In 2005, the Agency found that Egypt failed to report its uranium irradiation experiments conducted over 1990-2003, and to include imports of uranium material in its initial inventory. While the Director General’s report concluded that there was no explicit policy of concealment, the Agency’s lenient approach in face of these violations raised concerns internationally. Moreover, while the investigation established a benchmark, making similar future activities highly visible, Egypt continued on this pattern: traces of highly enriched uranium were detected at Inshas in 2007 and 2008, necessitating repeated IAEA probes.

On July 9, 2012, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy presented the feasibility study on the construction of a nuclear power plant in al-Dabaa for new Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi to review. Pressure on the new government to assign the limited economic resources to priority areas will likely be a major determinant of the project’s pace. Below are some thoughts on the program’s direction.

One, a decision will have to be made whether or not Egypt will seek to master the full nuclear cycle. The hot cells at the Inshas site already provide some reprocessing capacity, and having learned the process in principle, scaling up would not be difficult. Such a development, or pursuit of enrichment technology (less likely), would send a strong signal about the country’s willingness to ‘keep its options open’.

Two, Iranian-Egyptian rapprochement would be a way to raise concerns on the proliferation front, even if it is confined to rhetoric. Said Jalili of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has already suggested that Iran would be willing to extend cooperation on “peaceful nuclear energy.” While Egypt is not likely to depend on Iran for its nuclear program, closer relations between Iran and Egypt, in the face of international efforts to isolate Iran, do not bode well.

Three, Egypt’s decision regarding the ratification of the Addition Protocol may ultimately determine if it can actually purchase nuclear reactors for the power plant at the end of the bidding process. Before the project was frozen in 2011, a number of international companies had expressed interest, including Rosatom (Russian), KEPCO (South Korean), Areva (French), Siemens (German), Hitachi (Japanese) and Westinghouse (American). Adherence to the Additional Protocol is required by vendors – explicitly by Japan, or implicitly by others using technology that originated from the U.S. – and presently, even Russia seems unlikely to try and bend these regulations. On the other hand, Egypt’s accession to the Protocol would diminish the ambiguity of its nuclear stance even further.

Four, Egypt’s potential effort to reach out to the Gulf States for investments in the project would be the surest way not only to secure funding but also to give these countries a sense of practical involvement. That Morsi chose Saudi Arabia for his first official visit may point in this direction.  

Maintaining a credible stance of nuclear ambiguity will require Egypt to engage in a delicate balancing act: rocking the boat just enough to remind Israel that it is not off the hook regarding nuclear disarmament, but at the same time placating the Gulf states (and the U.S.) that fear a nuclear arms race in the region. However, as the momentum for the WMDFZ Conference seems to be petering out, with the Iranian nuclear program under increasing international scrutiny, Egypt may feel it is worth raising the stakes.

Egle Murauskaite is a research assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.