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Egypt consolidates lead in Arab nuclear power race

by Staff Writers
Cairo (AFP) March 27, 2008
By signing a deal this week with Russia, Egypt is pushing forward with its desire to stay at the head of a nuclear family Arab nations are creating to counterbalance Iran and Israel.

A handshake between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday sealed the nuclear cooperation deal that looks set to cause some concern in the West.

"Western countries can be intrigued and a little concerned, even if nothing has (yet) been concluded on a commercial level," Antoine Basbous, director of the Paris-based Arab World Observatory told AFP.

Russia, which is close to completing Iran's controversial first nuclear facility in Bushehr, is keen to re-establish a commercial and diplomatic presence in the Middle East.

Putin praised Egypt as "one of the leaders of the Islamic and the Arab world" and said Russian-Egyptian relations were of "strategic importance."

In October, Mubarak decided to relaunch Egypt's nuclear energy programme, started with the Soviet Union in 1961 but frozen following the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.

A tender will be launched later this year for Egypt's first nuclear reactor, expected to be built at Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast at a cost of 1.5 to 1.8 billion dollars.

While on the face of it the deal simply allows Russia to bid for that contract, Mubarak's declaration that it followed "difficult" negotiations suggests substantial details of the deal have yet to emerge.

The nuclear desire seems to be spreading throughout the unstable region, with a dozen Arab nations, from the Gulf to the Atlantic, having declared their nuclear power aspirations.

"This is an Arab right," Mubarak declared at last year's Arab League summit in Riyadh, heralding a vision of an Arab nuclear family.

Six Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, as well as Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Algeria and Morocco have said they would like to have civilian nuclear programmes in an atmosphere made heavier by Iran's rampant nuclear crisis.

As yet, no Arab nation figures on the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) list of 31 countries with nuclear power plants.

Arab nations cite their need for energy security in the face of ever-expanding domestic energy demands. This includes countries with vast oil and gas reserves, which can be more profitable if exported.

"It's Iran's wish to accelerate its dubious programme that has pushed Arab countries to throw themselves into the race for nuclear power," said Basbous.

The IAEA's Egyptian chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in February that "all the Arab countries' nuclear activities will be under agency safeguard systems, so I don't see why anybody should be concerned."

Amid Western doubts over the ultimate civilian or military aims of Iran's programme, they have yet to announce any misgivings over Arab nuclear ambitions.

While Western analysts mention the risk of nuclear proliferation in the hyper-sensitive Middle East, their governments give priority to their commercial interests.

The United States has signed an initial nuclear cooperation agreement with Bahrain. France, whose Areva is the world leader in commercial nuclear energy, has signed similar agreements with Algeria, Libya and the United Arab Emirates.

Egypt, which ratified the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1981, seeks a nuclear weapons-free Middle East and regularly criticises Israel for its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

However, Egypt has also said it will not sign a voluntary additional protocol to the NPT that would allow more intrusive inspections, saying it could make it too dependent on other countries for nuclear energy needs.

Israel, which has never admitted to having a nuclear arsenal but is widely believed to have around 200 warheads, is the only Middle Eastern country not to have signed the NPT.

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Toshiba expands in US with NRG nuclear tie-up
Tokyo (AFP) March 26, 2008
Japan's Toshiba Corp. announced a deal Wednesday aimed at expanding its share of US nuclear power plant construction with a 300 million dollar investment in a venture with US giant NRG Energy Inc.

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