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US welcomes Egypt's plan to build nuclear plants

Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak voiced plans to construct several nuclear power plants to diversify energy resources and preserve its gas and oil for future generations. The United States immediately approved the plan.

President pledged Egypt would work with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency at all times, and would not seek a nuclear bomb.

But Mubarak also made clear there were strategic reasons for the program, calling secure sources of energy "an integral part of Egypt's national security system."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would not object to the program as long as Egypt adhered to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines.

"The problem has arisen, specifically in the case of Iran, where you have a country that has made certain commitments, and in our view and the shared view of many ... (is) cheating on those obligations," he said.

"For those states who want to pursue peaceful nuclear energy ... that's not a problem for us," McCormack said. "Those are countries that we can work with."

The United States accuses Iran of using the cover of a peaceful nuclear program to secretly work toward building a bomb, an allegation Iran denies. Iran asserts it has a right to peaceful nuclear power and needs it to meet its economy's voracious energy needs.

But Iran's program has prompted a slew of Mideast countries to announce plans of their own in part simply to blunt Iran's rising regional influence.

"A lot of this is political and strategic," said Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Egypt is highly sensitive to the fact that Iran hopes to open its Bushehr nuclear plant next year, said Mohamed Abdel-Salam, director of the regional security program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"(Iran's) regional role as well as Iran's political use of the nuclear issue have added to Egypt's sensitivity," he said. Other Arab countries' recent nuclear announcements "added extra pressure on Egypt not to delay any more."

Jordan, Turkey and several Gulf Arab countries have announced in recent months that they are interested in developing nuclear power programs, and Yemen's government in September signed a deal with a U.S. company to build civilian nuclear plants over the next 10 years.

Algeria also signed a cooperation accord with the United States on civil nuclear energy in June, and Morocco announced a deal last week under which France will help develop nuclear reactors there.

Despite the declarations of peaceful intentions, there are worries the countries could be taking the first steps toward a dangerous proliferation in the volatile Mideast.

Such fears intensified when Israel launched a Sept. 6 airstrike against Syria, a country allied with Iran that the United States accuses of supporting terrorism.

U.S. officials have been quoted in news reports as saying the strike targeted a North Korean-style structure that could have been used for the start of a nuclear reactor.

Syria denies that it has a secret nuclear program, and says the building was an unused military facility.

Israel has not officially commented on the raid or acknowledged carrying it out.

But Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, this weekend criticized Israel and the U.S. for failing to provide the IAEA with any evidence backing up the claim of a Syrian nuclear program.

Following a policy it calls "nuclear ambiguity," Israel has never confirmed nor denied having a nuclear weapons program itself.

But Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at an Israeli nuclear plant, spent 18 years in prison after giving details of the country's atomic program to a British newspaper in 1986. His information led many outside experts to conclude that Israel has the world's sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Egypt had first announced a year ago that it was seeking to restart a nuclear program that was publicly shelved in the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl.

Mubarak offered no timetable Monday, but a year ago, Hassan Yunis, the minister of electricity and energy, said that Egypt could have an operational nuclear power plant within 10 years.

Egypt has conducted nuclear experiments for research purposes on a very small scale for the past four decades, at a reactor northeast of Cairo, but they have not included the key process of uranium enrichment, the IAEA says.

Abdel-Salam said Egypt has already extensively studied a sit for a plant, at El-Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria, and predicted it could build a plant within three years.

Outside experts were more conservative, with Wolfsthal saying a decade or longer was more likely. Egypt will almost certainly have to rely on extensive foreign help to build a plant, he said.

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