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UN Flags Egypt Nuke Experiments

The U.N. atomic watchdog agency has found evidence of secret nuclear experiments in Egypt that could be used in weapons programs, diplomats said Tuesday.

The diplomats told The Associated Press that most of the work was carried out in the 1980s and 1990s but said the watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency — is also looking at evidence that suggests some were as recent as a year ago.

Specifically, said one of the diplomats, the Egyptians "tried to produce various components of uranium" without declaring it to the IAEA, as they were bound to under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Among the products were several pounds of uranium metal and of uranium tetrafluoride — a precursor to uranium hexafluoride gas, said the diplomat, who demanded anonymity.

Uranium metal can be processed into plutonium, while uranium hexafluoride can be enriched into weapons grade uranium — both for use in the core of nuclear warheads.

He said the Vienna-based agency has not yet drawn a conclusion on the scope and purpose of the experiments.

But the diplomat — who is well connected to IAEA sources — said the work appeared to have been sporadic, involved small amounts of material and to have lacked a particular focus.

That, he said, indicated that the work was laboratory scale and not directly geared toward creating a full-scale program to make nuclear weapons.

Egypt has denied in the past that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapons program.

The country appeared to turn away from the pursuit of such a program decades ago. The Soviet Union and China reportedly rebuffed its requests for nuclear arms in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, Egypt gave up the idea of building a plutonium production reactor and reprocessing plant.

Egypt runs small-scale nuclear programs for medical and research purposes. Plans were floated as recently as 2002 to build the country's first nuclear power reactor. But no construction date has been announced, and the pro-government Al-Ahram Weekly reported late last year that the plant site near the coastal town of Al-Dabaa might be sold to make way for tourism development.

Although it signed the Nonproliferation Treaty, Egypt in recent years has become one of its most vocal critics, mainly because of concerns over Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal and more recent fears about Iran's nuclear agenda.

By George Jahn

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