Preventing a nuclear spiral in the Middle East

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 21 Jun 2013

In Vienna, Egyptian scientists warn of a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East if exceptions to oversight are permitted

Outside view of the UN building with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, office inside, in Vienna, Austria (Photo: AP)

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) is an organisation that will be charged with verifying the ban on nuclear tests once the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) goes into force.

Although the treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, it awaits ratification by several key states. Nevertheless, in 1997 the Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO was established to build, certify and operate the infrastructure for detection of nuclear testing. 

Operating out of the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the commission is currently concerned with the recent nuclear tests conducted by North Korea, trying to determine, for example, whether the fissive material used was uranium or plutonium.

Speaking at the annual CTBT Science and Technology Conference in Vienna, former IAEA Director General Hans Blix aired international anxieties about the nuclear arms race and nuclear testing, such as those conducted by North Korea.

Addressing an audience of 800 international nuclear technology experts, Blix also touched on the question of the alleged possession of nuclear weapons by the regime of Saddam Hussein, used to justify the US war on Iraq.

Iraq did not even have a nuclear programme to begin with, he said. The IAEA inspection teams that went to Iraq did not produce a trace of evidence of the existence of nuclear weaponry or material.

Not that this was the first time the former IAEA chief had spoken so forthrightly on this question. In interview with CNN, after a nine-year silence, he said that Washington was bent on invading Iraq, regardless of the existence or non-existence of nuclear weapons. After 11 September, the Bush regime was determined to steer the affairs of the Arab world, beginning by creating a model for democratic transformation in Iraq. The plan backfired drastically. It may have rid Iraq of a dictator, but it ushered in a model of chaos and a new ally for Iran, rather than a friend to the US.
In Vienna, Blix reminded his audience that eight states still have to ratify the CTBT in order for it to go into effect. Because of the current volatility in the Middle East, he was particularly keen for Egypt, Israel and Iran to ratify it. These three countries, together with the US and China, have signed the treaty but not ratified. India, North Korea and Pakistan have not yet signed.

A group of Egyptian scientists took part in this year’s CTBT conference. Among these was the Egyptian scientist Rashad El-Qabisi, former director of the international centre of the CTBTO.

In interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, El-Qabisi explained that political considerations primarily related to Israel had kept Egypt from ratifying the CTBT, as well as the supplementary CTBTO protocol. Neither Tel Aviv nor Tehran have ratified the treaty or the supplementary protocol.

El-Qabisi warned of the dangers of a spiralling nuclear arms race in the Middle East. While the preparatory commission of the CTBTO on underground nuclear testing has assembled a considerable amount of data, it only tells so much.

For example, although there is some information on the types of tests that Israel conducted in the Indian Ocean, it does not offer reliable or accurate information on what is actually going on in its nuclear programme. Nor does there exist certain information about what is taking place in the Iranian nuclear facilities at Bushahr Barship and elsewhere, he added.

Two Egyptian scientists delivered important papers at the conference: Yusri Abu Shadi, formerly a senior inspector at IAEA, and the nuclear specialist Shaaban Laban.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Abu Shadi voiced his hope that Egypt would move quickly to build nuclear power stations.

At Alexandria University, he constructed a miniature model of a nuclear reactor for the purposes of generating electricity. The model actually works and can generate sufficient electrical power for a large suburb, such as Cairo’s Nasr City, he said, adding that he planned to unveil this model next month.

He believes that this experiment demonstrates the potential of Egypt’s industrial infrastructure, which could contribute to producing full-scale projects of this sort. In addition, he said, Egypt has scientists who could work with international experts to build its first four reactors, after which it would possess the knowhow to build more on its own.

Abu Shadi pointed out that this was how Iran began its nuclear programme. It now can run a complete uranium enrichment cycle. He stressed that he was convinced that the Iranian nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes and that he was suspicious of intelligence information to the contrary.

Egypt did, in fact, have plans to build a nuclear reactor in the coastal area of El-Sabgha. In January 2011, a company was supposed to have been selected to carry out this project, but the revolution intervened and, subsequently, people from the Bedouin tribes in that area occupied the intended site.

Abu Shadi sees a way out of the dilemma. In his opinion, the facility does not require such a large area as had been designated for it in El-Sabgha. Rather than all of 60 acres, 15 would be enough, and the government could negotiate with the tribes on that basis and offer them the assurances they require.

But what is more important at this stage is political resolve at the top and the courage to take the necessary sovereign decisions to go ahead with the project, regardless of US or Israeli pressures

Although the advancement of Egypt’s nuclear energy programme had been an item on Mohamed Morsi’s campaign platform, it appears that the president has since backed off from the matter. Nonetheless, Abu Shadi vows, “We will continue to play our part until Egypt has reactors.”

El-Qabisi, too, believes that nuclear energy is vital, given the country’s current energy crisis, and especially in light of the Nile waters crisis. Nor would there necessarily have to be political fallout if Egypt pressed ahead with its nuclear energy programme. “There are different types of nuclear programmes, some designed to produce the technology for nuclear weapons. But the types of reactors that Abu Shadi has designed are solely for peaceful energy uses.”

El-Qabisi, who currently works as a professor at the Institute for Geophysics and Chemistry at Helwan, which is jointly run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Scientific Research, the Armed Forces, the General Intelligence Service and Military Intelligence, said that over the past decade Egypt has benefited from the “highly important” information it obtained from CTBTO programmes.

In addition, a significant number of the scientific and technical staff at this institute received the necessary training to participate in the development of a peaceful nuclear energy programme. However, he also believes that it is important for “Egypt, Israel and Iran to sit around the same table” to discuss how to end the nuclear arms race in the region.

El-Qabisi also urged Tel Aviv and Tehran to open their facilities to IAEA inspection teams.

“Egypt has been following developments with respect to the Iranian nuclear programme and is extremely worried. The same applies to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries of the Gulf, and even Jordan. Had it not been for US reassurances, all these countries would have probably striven to obtain reactors and we would be seeing a major nuclear arms race in the region.”


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