Cairo — When Egypt was at war with Israel in years past, it was always aware of the threat of a nuclear attack from Israel. Now Egypt is at peace, and Egyptian nuclear scientists insist they are committed to peaceful uses of nuclear power.
But as the number of states in the region within grasp of achieving nuclear arms continues to multiply, Egypt may be forced to reassess the nuclear equation in the Middle East.
As the review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty opens in Geneva this week, the big powers are coming under fire from smaller countries because of their failure to help curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Egypt, one of the "critical nuclear threshold states" attending the conference, is concerned that it may be sucked into a regional arms race by big-power inaction.
"It is up to the big powers to keep nuclear arms out of the sea," says Electricity Minister Muhammad Osman Abaza, who is involved in Egypt's nuclear energy program. "What do we need them for? If one country gets them here, everyone else will feel they will have to."
Egypt, along with Iraq, has the most advanced nuclear research program in the Arab world. The Egyptian atomic energy organization was founded in 1955, and Egypt's one research reactor was built and supplied with fuel by the Soviet Union at Anshass in 1961.
An estimated 500 Egyptian nuclear scientists and engineers work at the Nuclear Research Center at Anshass and at the Atomic Energy Organization in Cairo. Others work in other parts of the Arab world.
Nuclear scientists are active in international nuclear forums and hold senior positions in the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation Committee. Yahia Mashad, former chairman of the nuclear engineering department, left the university to join Iraq's nuclear program and was killed in his Paris hotel room in June.
But while Egypt has the technology to become a nuclear power, it lacks the equipment and the finances to carry out a sustained nuclear program. The small 2,000-kilowatt reactor at Anshass does not produce enough fuel to divert to weapons, nor does Egypt have the reprocessing equipment to convert uranium to plutonium.
Egypt also lacks the funds to finance extensive nuclear facilities. The one 600- megawatt nuclear reactor Egypt commissioned from Westinghouse Electric in the United States in 1975 (which has yet to be delivered) now has an estimated cost of $600 million to $1 billion.
Since a nuclear option is not practical for Egypt, the Egyptian military has relied on other deterrents to prevent a nuclear war. Shortly after the 1973 October war, then Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Ghani Gamassi told the Egyptian parliament that nuclear weapons were not the only weapons of mass destruction, but that chemical and incendiary weapons could be equally as effective.
Now that there is a peace treaty, an immediate threat to Egypt of an Israeli nuclear attack has been removed. But, as one Egyptian military strategist noted , "The peace now is still shaky. Unitl there is a comprehensive settlement, Israel is still regarded as a threat."
The military strategist went on to discount Libya as lacking the personnel, expertise, and facilities to become a serious nuclear threat.
Iraq, the more likely candidate, "would never attack Egypt. We fight with words, but they will not bomb us," he said. Egypt has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but says it will not ratify it until Israel signs.
Meanwhile, Egyptian energy planners say they hope to have six electricity-generating reactors operating in Egypt by the year 2000.