1991 Controversy over Algerian Nuclear Reactor Led Washington to Seek Chinese Assistance

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A collection of recently declassified NSC and State Department documents published today by the National Security Archive sheds new light on Algerian-Chinese nuclear relations and Beijing's role in U.S. nonproliferation efforts during the George H.W. Bush administration. The discovery of a Chinese-supplied nuclear reactor project in Algeria stimulated a controversy over whether Algiers sought a weapons capability and the extent to which Beijing was abetting nuclear proliferation.

At a time when nuclear power is becoming more and more attractive to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the 1991 Algerian case has new relevance. The 1991 controversy came to light against the background of intelligence leaks about the capabilities of Algeria's Es Salam reactor leading the Bush administration to initiate a campaign of pressure on Algiers to support nonproliferation goals. Washington also encouraged Beijing to take responsibility by inducing Algiers to make nonproliferation assurances and to open the reactor site to international inspectors. The flap quieted when Algeria declared its willingness to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Documents published today include:

* Reports showing that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research had received documents on the Chinese-Algerian negotiations several years before 1991, but had mislaid them leading to delays in internal U.S. government discussions of the deal.

* An NSC report on the "Algerian Nuclear Program" showing the basis of U.S. government concern: the "cooling towers of the reactor appear adequate to support operation of a substantially large reactor, possibly up to 50 MWT," much larger than would be needed for nuclear research. Also of concern was a "heavy-walled facility...that appears suited to provide options for a future reprocessing capability, waste storage, or research applications."

* An updated version of the same report, which observed that, "We do not have sufficient information from which to conclude that the [Algerian Government] has decided to pursue a military nuclear program"; nevertheless, the State Department wanted the IAEA to inspect the Algerian facilities to answer questions about the reactor's power level and the size of the cooling tower.

* A State Department memorandum observing that Algerian and Chinese statements, prompted by still-classified U.S. demarches, "alleviated our concerns about the proliferation implications" of the reactor. Nevertheless, Washington should "continue to press [Algeria| to act promptly by notifying the IAEA of its intention to submit the reactor to safeguards."

* A confidential Chinese government note, handed to the State Department at the end of May 1991, describing the February 1983 agreement with Algeria, under which it was supplying the Algerians with 11 metric tons of heavy water and 216 fuel modules.

* State Department cables showing continued concern about Algeria's intentions; the Department contemplated pressure on Switzerland not to sell Algiers a hot isostatic press, which had nuclear weapons and missile applications.

Under pressure from the international community, Algeria eventually signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but questions about its nuclear intentions linger and recent developments raise new questions. Amid recent talk about a "renaissance" in nuclear power, Algeria and other countries in the region have been discussing reactor deals with such suppliers as Russia and France. For some observers, the possibility of expanded nuclear power capabilities in North Africa and the Middle East, especially in light of the Iranian challenge, raises proliferation concerns. Years ago, a report by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein criticized Algeria for not being "open enough to allay widespread suspicions about its [nuclear] activities." How much the situation has changed remains to be seen.

Read entire article at National Security Archive

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