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El Cesid warns that Algeria can have the capacity to produce military plutonium in two years: The Algerian atomic program exceeds it civil need, according to a confidential report

by M. Gonzáles/J.M. Larraya, Madrid

August 3, 1998

from El Pais UNOFFICIAL TRANSLATION Algeria has renounced nuclear weapons, signing the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and submitting to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls. However, they are continuing with a nuclear program which greatly exceeds their civil needs and which in two years may have the facilities necessary to produce military plutonium, the key element in nuclear weapons. So warns a confidential report written in July by the Cesid, according to whom, Algeria will be at the end of the century in a technical position to go nuclear if the authorities so decide. The nuclear tests conducted this past May by India and Pakistan have set off alarms in the West about the risk of nuclear proliferation in the third world. For Spain, the main worry centers on the developed nuclear program in Algeria, with the technical support of China and Argentina. In that context, this past July, the secret service, Cesid, brought up a report to the government, which El Pais has acquired, in which they describe the current situation of said program, and warn of the danger of tolerating this deception regarding military objectives. "Actually, Algeria found itself fully incorporated in the nonproliferation regime, after accepting the required discipline of IAEA safeguards," stated the intelligence service document, classified as confidential. "Still," it added, " the Algerian nuclear program, conceived originally with a clear military purpose, continues to equip the facilities needed to carry through the activities related to the complete cycle of obtaining military grade plutonium, the key element in a nuclear weapons program." "Although the Algerian government's decision with respect to the nuclear program was far from the political will during the eighties, the knowledge acquired by a notable team of technicians and scientists, with the availability of the facilities that it will have at the end of the century, puts this country in a privileged position to restart the program's military character if the political decision is made," concluded the report. The political instability in Algeria, which has been immersed in a bloody civil conflict since 1991 when they suspended the elections which gave a victory to the fundamentalists, gives credit to the possibility that future Algerian authorities could revise its renunciation of atomic weapons.

Pressure from the United States

The Cesid report did not leave any doubt with respect to the objectives of the secret accords signed by Algeria and China, and Algeria and Argentina at the beginning of the eighties: "to produce military grade plutonium, the material necessary to be able to build a nuclear weapon." It was pressure from the United States, whose satellites discovered the construction of the nuclear reactor at Es Salam, near Birine 250 kilometers south of Algiers, which led the authorities in the North African country to accept IAEA safeguards in 1992 and accede to the NPT in 1995. The IAEA inspections of the Algerian facilities produced tensions, as they discovered that 3 kilograms of enriched uranium, some liters of heavy water, and various pieces of natural uranium supplied by China had not been declared to the IAEA. Once overcoming these differences, the document estimates that the IAEA safeguards regime, which includes tri-yearly inspections, "doesn't totally guarantee the impossibility of an irregular, undeclared use of Algeria's nuclear facilities, but it will prevent these activities occurring continuously." The Es Salam reactor has the theoretical capacity to produce up to 3 kilograms of plutonium annually, but the report estimates that only a few grams could be diverted for military purposes without being detected by the international controls. Furthermore, according to the report, Algeria depends on outside suppliers of nuclear fuel (the IAEA has confirmed the purchase of 150 tonnes of uranium concentrate from Nigeria in 1984) because it is not "self-sufficient to undertake a military nuclear program alone, this being its main limitation now." However, this last statement can be seen denied by the recent discovery of uranium in the Hoggar region, in the southeast of the country. In any case, the best reason of unrest lies in that Algeria's acceptance of IAEA safeguards and adherence to the NPT has not meant a freeze of its nuclear program, and not even revised the original plan, conceived with military ends in mind. All the documentation related to the project, added the report, was classified as secret by the Algerian authorities, "which is surprising due to the totally peaceful use that, according to the official declarations," the facilities were to have. As a consequence, the Nuclear Energy Commission (which since last March had directed all activities in this sector) found itself "with a capability in the nuclear area much superior to their needs," in the judgment of the Cesid. Needs, on the other hand, which are very limited, since the greatest wealth of Algeria is precisely its abundant energy reserves, especially natural gas. Worries about the development of Algeria's nuclear program are not exclusive to the Cesid. CSIS in Washington reached similar conclusions in a June document which underlined the possession by the Algerian armed forces of delivery vehicles (bombers, missile launchers, and Soviet-made rockets) capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Algeria also has underground sites where, before independence, France carried out tests of its own nuclear weapons.

A nuclear program assisted by China and Argentina

China has been the principle supplier of nuclear technology to Algeria since those countries signed a secret accord in 1983. The program involved the construction of the nuclear complex at Birine, which includes the Es Salam reactor, a hot cell laboratory, and another for the production of radioisotopes. Es Salam is a heavy water reactor, with 15 megawatt capability, able to produce military grade plutonium. Opened in December 1993, as soon as it was functional, except during tests. It also had concluded the second phase of the program, the construction of the hot cell laboratory, where it will dismantle the nuclear fuel removed from the reactor, the prior step for obtaining plutonium. The third and final phase of the program will consist of the construction of a radioisotope production laboratory, with the capability to extract plutonium from the nuclear fuel first irradiated in the reactor, and then dismantled in the hot cells. Algeria and China signed the corresponding contract in May 1997 to import $1.9 million (285 million pesetas), but construction has, as yet, not begun, and is expected to begin after the summer and last for two years. The Chinese cooperation was complemented by that of Argentina, which, in 1989, sold Algeria the Nur research reactor, irrelevant from a military point of view. Argentina also committed to build a fuel fabrication plant, in theory for the Nur reactor, but really directed at Es Salam, which can only operate with uranium enriched to 3%. Due to the fact that the Algerians complained of faulty construction and Argentinean delays in payments, the plant has not yet begun operating, although it should have in 1990. Almost completed, it should begin functioning by the end of this year.

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