The Algerian Nuclear Problem
1991 Controversy over the Es Salam Nuclear Reactor
Algeria’s Ain Oussera nuclear reactor site, satellite image taken 7 May 2000. The reactor complex is the set of installations in the middle of the right side of the square. The Es Salam reactor is the prominent white rectangle. The area to the left of the reactor site may be housing for staff. The white area above is an airstrip. The Web site of the Institute for Science and International Security includes a detailed evaluation of an earlier image, showing the location of other structures (cooling towers, etc.), as well as other photos and images of the Ain Ouserra complex.
1991 Controversy over Algerian Nuclear Reactor Led Washington to Seek Chinese Assistance in Pressing Algiers to Adhere to Nuclear Nonproliferation Goal. In the spring of 1991, leaks to the Washington Times on intelligence community discussions of the nuclear activities of the Algerian government and a Chinese reactor sale to that country stimulated a flap within the George H. W. Bush administration over the possibility that Algiers had started a nuclear weapons program. NSC and State Department documents published for the first time today by the National Security Archive shed light on the internal U.S. debate over Algeria’s capabilities and intentions, on U.S. queries to China for details and assurances about the reactor sale, and Washington’s pressure to ensure that Algiers adhered to nonproliferation norms. Washington in 1991 wanted Chinese help to assure Algerian compliance with nonproliferation goals. Whatever Algeria’s real intentions were–and the U.S. intelligence community was divided about this–Washington, Beijing, and the international community brought Algiers into the NPT-system within a few years of the controversy.
The Algerian situation is an example of the complexities and difficulties of nuclear weapons intelligence. Questions about the capabilities and intentions of potential members of the nuclear club, whose activities are invariably surrounded by tight secrecy, have characteristically shaped the policy debate on nuclear proliferation. Declassified U.S. government documents on pending controversies, e.g., over Iran and North Korea, are practically impossible to obtain, even on the earliest stages of the controversy. Thus, recently declassified documents from 1991 on the then-secret debate over Algeria’s nuclear ambitions provide a rare glimpse of an early post-Cold War test of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
The Algerian nuclear question became a public issue on April 11, 1991, when the Washington Times published a story by Bill Gertz headlined: “China Helps Algeria Develop Nuclear Weapons.” Reflecting his military intelligence sources, Gertz wrote that Beijing was helping the Algerian government build a nuclear reactor near the village of Ain Oussera that could be used to build weapons. According to one of Gertz’s anonymous sources, “This is clearly a military nuclear reactor for weapons production.” No power-lines or power-generating facilities at the reactor were evident and an anti-aircraft missile battery was spotted near the site. Gertz’s sources also told him that Beijing was supplying the Algerians with “military advice on how to match nuclear weapons to various aerial and missile delivery systems.”
Only months before the Gertz story appeared, U.S. photographic satellites had picked up images of the construction, in an isolated part of the country, of the Ain Oussera nuclear site. While military intelligence interpreted the reactor and the site in the way that Gertz described, he did not mention that State Department analysts who, while concerned, were not convinced that it was a military project.
The press leaks made the Algerian nuclear question a public one. The controversy spread to Congress and intensified pressure on the George H.W. Bush administration and the International Atomic Energy Authority to ensure that Algeria was developing on lines that were compatible with nonproliferation norms. Gertz’s story may have forced the Bush administration’s hand by inducing it to confront the Algerian problem more quickly than it may have originally intended. That the story involved China, whose nuclear relationship with Pakistan already troubled the Bush Administration, made the issue an even more complex and delicate one.
Whatever the reactor’s exact purpose was, no doubt suspicions increased when, on 10 April 1991, the Algerian government expelled the British military attaché, William Cross, who had been found taking pictures near the site. Even though Algeria was undergoing an uncertain and difficult transition from a system controlled exclusively by the National Liberation Front to a more pluralist, multi-party system, a “culture of secrecy” was a powerful legacy of one-party rule and the underground anti-colonial resistance. While U.S .and British intelligence sought to penetrate the secrecy, Washington understood the delicacy of Algeria’s internal situation, especially the threat posed by the Islamic Salvation Front to any possibility for the development, much less preservation, of political democracy. This made it important to avoid a heavy-handed approach to Algeria that could lead to protests against Western intervention, especially after the recent war with Iraq.
After the revelations in the media about the Es Salem reactor, the Bush administration issued secret demarchés to both Algiers and Beijing. An approach to China was difficult because of an already difficult relationship with Beijing over human rights and trade issues during the tense post-Tiananmen period. Nevertheless, the Bush administration wanted help from China to ensure that the Algerians applied appropriate safeguards to ensure that it would be used for civilian energy purposes only. The issue was settled in ways that the Bush administration found more or less satisfactory, with both Algeria and China agreeing that the reactor should be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Inspections began the next year. With Beijing positioning itself to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it had reason to demonstrate its commitment to the nonproliferation agenda.
Much remains secret about the controversy over the Algerian nuclear project, for example, over the extent of internal debate over how tough to be with Beijing over the deal with Algeria. Nevertheless, State Department has released important documents, a number of them after FOIA appeals, from the files of Ambassador-at-Large for Nonproliferation and Nuclear Energy Policy Richard T. Kennedy, who played a key role in the Reagan and Bush administrations. While significant information was denied, probably to protect intelligence sources and sensitive diplomatic communications, the documents provide insight into the controversy:
- An NSC report on the “Algerian Nuclear Program” suggests why some U.S. officials were worried; 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 “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 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.
- Illuminating the State Department’s skeptical stance about the hard-line interpretations of Algerian nuclear intentions, one routing memo reads “This should help put to rest the great Algerian nuclear weapons scare.”
- In response to still-classified demarches, by late April Algeria and China had issued statements about the reactor project that, according to a State Department, “alleviated our concerns about the proliferation implications”. Nevertheless, Washington should “continue to press [Algeria| to act promptly by notifying the IAEA of its intention to submit the reactor to safeguards.”
- At the end of May 1991, the Chinese government handed the State Department a confidential note describing the February 1983 agreement with Algeria and stating that it was supplying the Algerians with 11 metric tons of heavy water and 216 fuel modules.
- Continued concern about Algeria’s intentions led the State Department to apply pressure on Switzerland to refuse to sell to Algiers a hot isostatic press, which had nuclear weapons and missile applications.
- Newly declassified documents illuminate a late stage of the controversy, when The New York Times ran a story in November 1991 asserting that Ambassador Kennedy had suppressed information on the Algeria-China nuclear connection that had come to light several years before U.S. intelligence discovered the reactor. As it turned out, Ambassador Kennedy had turned over documents to INR, which then “misplaced” them for over two years.
In light of U.S. expectations in 1991 that the IAEA would be inspecting Algeria’s nuclear facilities, the nuclear issue probably faded in importance for Washington, compared to more fundamental fears over Algeria’s future. In early 1992, after national elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front scored impressive victories, the military established a “state of emergency.” Soon a brutal and bloody civil war broke out between Islamic fundamentalists and the Algerian police and military. Civil war notwithstanding, in 1993 Algeria pledged to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it did in 1995), but the safeguards which the IAEA negotiated did not put an end to speculation about Algeria’s nuclear interests. The safeguards were limited, e.g., the Agency can not inspect all of the facilities and apparently has received little information from Algiers on the project’s origins. According to a 1997 report by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, Algeria has cooperated with the IAEA within the limits of its current safeguards agreements, but it “has not been open enough to allay widespread suspicions about its activities.” Algeria, like other African and Middle Eastern countries, continues to pursue nuclear options for electric power and desalination; Some observers worry that they are seeking a “nuclear hedge” in the event that Iran develops weapons. No doubt, U.S. intelligence and others continue to monitor the Algerian situation.