Highly Enriched Uranium Traces in Egypt Prompt IAEA Investigation

Minute amounts of highly enriched uranium have been found at an Egyptian nuclear research facility, prompting an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, May 5).

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said in a report obtained by the wire service that environmental swipe samples taken in 2007-2008 at the Inshas Nuclear Research Center tested positive for both low-enriched uranium, the type used in power plants, and highly enriched uranium. It was not known whether the highly enriched uranium particles were weapon-grade material.

Cairo indicated that the material "could have been brought into the country through contaminated radioisotope transport containers," according to the May 5 IAEA report, the result of monitoring intended to ensure that Egypt was meeting its nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

Agency officials said the explanation is not implausible but that they are continuing to seek the origin of the uranium. They are set to collect additional samples in the Cairo area.

The watchdog agency in 2005 criticized Egypt for failing to comply with United Nations standards for reporting nuclear research activity. There was no indication then that the nation was involved in nuclear-weapon work.

Egypt, which is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is planning a nuclear energy program that encompasses several reactors. It has not signed the Additional Protocol to its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which would give the agency authority to conduct more intrusive inspections at nuclear sites (Mark Heinrich, Reuters, May 6).

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry today called reports of an investigation "erroneous and old," Agence France-Presse reported.

"Egypt has in the past already explained to the agency the circumstances of this matter and agency officials agreed with Egyptian explanations," said spokesman Hossam Zaki.

"The agency always says in its reports that Egyptian nuclear activities are of a peaceful nature," he added.

Said one diplomat: "It is not that unusual for the agency to find traces of nuclear material in environmental samples at nuclear sites in a country. As needed, these are followed up by the Department of Safeguards" (Agence France-Presse/Spacewar.com, May 7).

May 7, 2009
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Minute amounts of highly enriched uranium have been found at an Egyptian nuclear research facility, prompting an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, May 5).

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