1991 Controversy over Algerian Nuclear Reactor Led Washington to Seek Chinese Assistance in Pressing Algiers to Adhere to Nuclear Nonproliferation Goal
National Security Archive
Electronic Briefing Book No. 228
Edited by William Burr
Posted - September 10, 2007
Washington DC, September 10, 2007 - 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. (Note 1)
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. (Note 2) 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. (Note 3)
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. (Note 4) 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. (Note 5) 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:
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." (Note 6) 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. (Note 7) Whether the intelligence community ever solved the puzzle of the cooling tower, however, may be learned from future declassifications.
[Source note: All documents included in this Electronic Briefing Book were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Department of State]
The Argentines provided Algeria's first nuclear research reactor but
it produced no controversy because the agreement applied IAEA safeguards.
During this reported conversation between U.S. Ambassador Christopher
Ross and a person who may have been an Argentine government official,
the latter mentioned "`rumors' about the possible 'hush-hush' construction
with Chinese aid, of a second … nuclear reactor designed to produce isotopes."
A confidential embassy source noted that the "Moroccans were quite
concerned about the Algerian nuclear program, but implied there was little
real basis for worry."
The Washington Times story quickly reached Ambassador Ross,
who may have discussed it with the Algerians or had his own observations.
The cable's "nodis" [no distribution without permission] status,
which has been massively excised, suggests its high sensitivity.
When a BBC reporter asked the State Department spokesman about the Washington Times story, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher took exception to the story's thrust: "We have no reason to conclude that China has agreed to provide assistance to Algeria for nuclear weapons development." In any event, the Department would "continue to review China's nonproliferation practices to determine whether they are consistent with its pronouncements" that it "does not engage in nuclear proliferation."
On 14 April Algeria's foreign minister confirmed its program of nuclear
cooperation with China "stressing that it is for peaceful uses."
The Washington Times story was followed by more, in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, as well as an industry trade journal, Nucleonics Week (whose European correspondent, Mark Hibbs, gave full coverage of the interagency debate). (Note 8) It was not until 25 April, however, that the National Security Council asked its Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) on Non-Proliferation to review the Algerian question and make recommendations on a "course of action" to the Deputies Committee. In particular, the PCC was to look at "any aspect of that program … that would not be satisfactorily addressed by IAEA safeguards."
A few days later, the PCC replied with its report and recommendations. Providing some basic history of Algerian-Chinese nuclear cooperation, the paper noted the problem of the cooling tower's large size: The Algerian and Chinese description of the project as a 15 MW reactor notwithstanding, "the cooling towers … appear adequate to support operations of a substantially large reactor possibly up to 50 MWT." (Note 9) While some Algerian political parties supported the acquisition of nuclear weapons, even if the government had that goal in mind, a development program would need "significant foreign assistance." The defensive missile batteries that had excited intelligence analysts and the Washington Times had been removed in March.
To ensure that the Algerians stayed away from a military path, the U.S.
would continue to encourage Algeria to consult with the IAEA, as well
as to sign the NPT. Washington was working with a number of allies--France,
the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal--to "exert influence
on Algeria" along the same lines. To the extent that other measures
"other than, or in addition, to safeguards," became necessary
the Department of Defense had developed a proposal for the event that
the "Algerian reactor turns out to be larger than 15 mwt." The
proposal is excised, but it may have involved suggestions for coercive
measures, from economic embargo to military action.
On 30 April 1991, Beijing responded publicly to U.S. pressure by declaring that the designed power of the rector was 10 megawatts and that it was "totally groundless to allege … that the reactor can be used to make nuclear weapons." Moreover, when Algiers and Beijing signed the contract for the reactor in 1983, China was not a member of the IAEA "so that there was no such a question as submitting to international safeguards." That same day, Gary Samore passed on to Ambassador Kennedy information that "should help put to rest the great Algerian nuclear weapons scare." What that information was is not clear (but it may have been the PRC announcement).
Document 7: Memorandum from John H. Kelly, Richard T. Kennedy, and E.U. Curtis Bohlen to Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs Reginald Bartholomew, "Algerian and Chinese Statements Help Ease Proliferation Concerns," 2 May 1991, Secret/Noforn, Excised Copy
On 29 April, a few days before the Chinese statement, the Algerians made their own public declaration about the reactor's size and its peaceful purposes. State Department officials had a cautiously optimistic take on the statements from Algiers and Beijing: "if the …statements about safeguards and the reactor's size are true, the reactor will not likely pose a proliferation threat. Nevertheless, we will continue to press the Algerian government …to submit the reactor to [IAEA] safeguards." (Note 10)
Documents 8a and 8b: Assurances to the French
Visiting Beijing Foreign Minister Roland Dumas emerged from discussions with Chinese officials with a statement on the Algerian nuclear question: "There is no question of Algeria's acquiring a nuclear weapon." Nevertheless, in view of its former colonial relationship with Algeria, France would be watching the situation closely. The U.S. embassy noted with some surprise that the French media was not playing up the Algerian nuclear story, but perhaps it was because British media had picked it up first.
To update Undersecretary for Political Affairs Robert Kimmitt, before he arrived in Beijing for meetings with senior officials, the Department provided information on the latest Algerian developments, as well as the text of a paper on "China and Nuclear Nonproliferation."
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs Richard
Clarke was in Cairo for discussions on arms control when Foreign Ministry
officials asked him about the press reports on Algeria. Clarke gave a
briefing that drew on a still-classified State Department cable.
The U.S. mission to the IAEA, had learned of the Agency's recent contacts
with Algeria and China, but the details are classified.
During Kimmit's meetings with Vice Foreign Minister Liu, the two agreed that U.S.-China relations were at a "critical point" in view of ongoing controversies over nonproliferation, trade, human rights, and renewal of Most-Favored Nation [MFN] status. While Liu objected to any linkage of MFN renewal with controversial problems, Kimmitt argued that the White House's decisions on MFN "would inevitably be against the backdrop of China's actions on these issues." On the Algerian nuclear problem, Kimmitt offered his appreciation over China's statement on nuclear cooperation with Algeria and expressed hope that Beijing would not only "encourage" Algiers to contact the IAEA, but that China would also sign the NPT. Kimmitt expressed greater disquiet about China's nuclear relationship with Pakistan. After insisting that Beijing had a "serious and responsible" attitude toward nonproliferation problems, Liu observed that Washington had policy "contradictions," e.g., "refusal to make an unconditional commitment not to use nuclear weapons against NFZ's [nuclear free zones] or against non-nuclear countries."
The embassy describes the Algerian government's media strategy, as well
as the efforts of U.S. diplomats to "keep the safeguards issue before
our Algerian contacts." During a conversation with Ambassador Ross,
the Chinese ambassador emphasized the "peaceful research and industrial
applications" of the project. The reactor could be used later for
power generation "but consideration of such a possibility was some
time off." Noting that the early media reports, e.g. Gertz's, had
claimed that the reactor was near the Mediterranean coast, the embassy
pointed out that it was being built on a high plateau above the Atlas
Mountains, 130 kilometers south of the capital.
As another sign of a forthcoming attitude on Beijing's part, during a meeting with Steven Aoki, special assistant to Under Secretary Reginald Bartholomew, Chinese embassy political counselor Xiao Houde handed over a paper with background information on the Algerian project. It included details on the purpose of the reactor and the nuclear materials provided to the Algerians. According to Aoki's report, China was "encouraging Algeria to move quickly to get safeguards in place."
Documents 15a and 15b: Under Secretary Bartholomew's Trip to China
In preparation for Bartholemew's mid-June trip, the State Department
prepared some background information along with a "non-paper"
that described the information that the Bush administration wanted from
Beijing to understand better "the nature of Sino-Algerian nuclear
cooperation." It is possible that the separate talking points document
related to the non-paper because it included at least one question that
Washington hoped that Beijing would answer: confirmation that China, like
the United States, would be "seriously concerned" if Algeria
was to "import, or develop indigenously, an enrichment or reprocessing
Document 16: U.S. embassy Algeria cable 02382 to State Department, "TV Feature on Algerian Nuclear Program," 7 June 1991, Confidential
Reporting on a two-hour long TV documentary on the Es Salam reactor, which included interior and exterior footage and interviews with managers and scientists, the Embassy commented that "this was a remarkable and uncharacteristic case of Algerian openness." Nevertheless, the Embassy believed that it would have "been more convincing had it come spontaneously, instead as part of a deliberate campaign to counter western press reports."
Documents 17a and 17b: Senator Biden's Questions to the State Department
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a vocal critic of Beijing's nuclear policy, had argued that, in light of the Algerian problem and related nuclear issues, "it appears China is rapidly becoming a rogue elephant among the community of nations." To get background information on the Algerian, Biden submitted a series of questions to Mary Ann Casey, who was then serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Regional Analysis in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (she became Ambassador to Algeria later in the year). The classified material shows that by late June the government was still unsure why the cooling towers were so large. "A 50 MWT reactor-depending on the type of fuel used-would be able to produce a significant amount of plutonium in its spent fuel" , enough to fuel at least one device a year. On the cost of the reactor, INR made the point that the "Chinese may have inflated the actual cost of the facility in order to enhance the hard currency profit that would accrue."
Document 18: "Talking Points on Algerian Nuclear Developments for Delivery to Senators Glenn and Roth (SGA), Senators Pell and Helms (SFRC), and Congressmen Fascell and Broomfield (HFAC)," circa 29 July 1991, Secret/NoForn, Excised Copy
Material prepared by INR for key Congressmen in late July repeated some of the points made in earlier briefing papers. Noting that the reactor's design specifications were consistent with a research program, INR noted that the Es Salem reactor was similar to one located at the Institute of Atomic Energy Research near Beijing. While questions about the cooling tower remained, once Algeria had negotiated a safeguards agreement with the IAEA it would provide the Agency with technical information about the reactor that would provide answers. The "defensive measures" that the Algerians had taken near the reactor "coincided with the duration of Desert Storm" (Internally divided over the Gulf conflict, Algeria had abstained from the UN resolutions against Iraq).
While waiting for the Algerians to take action with the IAEA, Washington remained concerned about Algeria's intentions; for example, an excised cable suggests pressure on the Swiss not to sell a hot isostatic press to Algiers. A dual-use technology, a hot-istostatic press had significant military potential, both for missile and nuclear weapons programs.
The Policy Coordinating Committee [PCC] on Non-Proliferation updated its Algeria paper sometime in September 1991. Besides providing basic background information, the PCC updated the state of play on the Algerian approach to the IAEA noting that "Algeria's record on timely completion of safeguards negotiations with the IAEA on the [Argentine reactor] is not a good one." The PCC emphasized the "current political uncertainties." Until elections were held, probably later in the year, "the government will not be able/willing to take significant decisions." Thus, U.S. pressure for a safeguards agreement could not become public information lest the subject "become a highly charged political issue." The PCC would continue its pressure on the Algerian government but if a "significant nuclear proliferation risk" emerged, it would explore "other options."
A New York Times story in November 1991 highlighted initial U.S. "inaction" on the Algerian nuclear problem because of "longstanding disagreements within the Government over how to interpret intelligence data and how tough to be on China." According to the article, in 1988 Richard Kennedy had received information on the Algerian-China nuclear deal but had, in effect, sat on the material for several years. The implication was that he wanted to avoid a controversy with China. Declassified reports show, however, that Kennedy had not suppressed the documents-a letter in English and several documents in French and Chinese-but had them sent to INR for analysis. "The documents were misplaced and were discovered by INR during a March 1991 file search." Writing to the editor of the Times, Kennedy complained that no one had interviewed him and insisted that the "information [about Algeria had been] put in the hands of the proper intelligence office without delay." The Times did not publish his letter. (Note 11)
As background for a November 1991 trip to Beijing, Secretary of State
James Baker received some talking points on China and the nuclear proliferation
problem. While supporting Beijing's decision to sign the NPT, State Department
officials remained concerned about China's ambiguous nuclear relationship
with Algeria, Iran, and Pakistan. Perhaps not entirely confident that
Beijing got the message that Under Secretary of State Bartholomew had
delivered during his June visit (if he had had an opportunity to deliver
it at all), Baker's advisers suggested that he express hope that China
"will continue to urge Algeria to complete its safeguards agreement"
and "refrain from any transfers of sensitive nuclear technologies
1. The most comprehensive study on the Algerian nuclear problem to date has been David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, "Algeria: Big Deal in the Desert?" The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 56 (May-June 2001): 45-52. See also Rodney W. Jones et al., Tracking Nuclear Proliferation: A Guide in Maps and Charts 1998 (Washington, DC., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998), 163-167.
6. Albright and Hinderstein, "Algeria: Big Deal in the Desert?" The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 56 (May-June 2001): 52; James Sterngold, "Experts fear nuke genie's out of bottle," San Francisco Chronicle, 22 November 2004. For on-line information on the current status of the Algerian program, see Institute for Science and International Security, "Country Assessments: Algeria," at http://www.isis-online.org/publications/algeria/index.html, as well as related information on at www.globalsecurity.org and www.fas.org.
7. See Joseph Cirincione and Uri Levetner, "The Middle East's Nuclear Surge: Recipe for War," The New York Times, 14 August 2007; Sammy Salama and Heidi Weber, "Arab Nuclear Envy," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists September-October 2007, 44-49; and"Nuclear Power for Everyone!," at http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1292/nuclear-power-for-everyone#comment.
8. Jim Mann, "China May be Giving A-arms Aid to Algeria," Los Angeles Times, 12 April 1991, R. Jeffrey Smith, "China Aid on Algerian Reactor May Violate Pledges, Washington Post, 20 April 1991, and Hibbs, "Cooling Towers Are Key to Claim Algeria is Building Bomb Reactor," Nucleonics Week, 18 April 1991.
9. For a current example of why nuclear experts, in and out of government, worry about large heavy-water reactors, see Jeffrey Lewis, "Technical Cooperation for Arak," http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/.