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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

El Salam Reactor / Ain Oussera

In 1991, the United States became concerned that Algeria might be developing a nuclear weapons program with the help of the Chinese government. The El Salam ("Peace") nuclear reactor is located near Birine at Ain Oussera, an isolated area in the Atlas Mountains 125 km due south of Algiers [sometimes erroneously reported as being at a site along Algeria's Mediterranean coast]. The town of Ain Oussera is located at 3527'05"N 00254'21"E and the Ain Oussera military airfield is located at 3531'26"N 00252'50"E [35.5254 North 2.87871 East].

The 15 MW thermal heavy water moderated reactor uses low enriched uranium fuel, and has a theoretical capacity to produce from three to five kilograms of plutonium a year [approximately equivalent to one nuclear weapon]. The facility includes a hot cell that can be used to separate plutonium on a small scale. A heavy walled building nearby has no announced function, but was believed to have been intended to be a full scale plutonium reprocessing plant.

A key indicator of the military nature of the nuclear facility was the discovery of a Soviet-made SA-5 surface-to-air missile battery nearby, which signaled an apparent defense against aircraft or missiles. Reports also suggested that satellite imagery showed unusually large cooling towers for a 15-MW reactor. The size of its cooling towers, however, indicated it might be as large as 60 megawatts.

Algerians asserted that the reactor was intended to produce only radioactive isotopes for medical research and to generate electric power. However, the secrecy surrounding the program, which had been initiated in 1986, raised suspicions. Algeria was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, having rejected it on the principle that Algeria should not have to renounce a nuclear weapons program when other nations could continue with theirs.

At a press conference on 29 April 1991 a spokesman for the Algerian Ministry of Scientific Research said that this second reactor was for research purposes and the production of radio-isotopes, and Algeria intended to submit it to IAEA inspection. Chinese spokesmen publicly confirmed this.

Under pressure from the United States, Algeria accepted IAEA safeguards in February 1992. The El Salam reactor began operating in late 1993. Algeria joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 1995, and agreed to inspection of the site by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA inspections discovered that three kilograms of enriched uranium, several liters of heavy water, and several pellets of natural uranium supplied by China had not been declared to the IAEA.

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