Newly declassified U.S. government documents confirm the U.S. government suspected China was helping Algeria build a secret facility in 1991 for developing nuclear weapons.
The 15-megawatt reactor is now a research center about 80 miles south of the Algerian capital of Algiers, and has been brought under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls.
However, the once-classified reports show the joint Chinese-Algerian nuclear project was kept secret from the 1980s until its existence was first disclosed by The Washington Times on April 11, 1991.
The disclosure set off international protests and diplomatic pressure involving eight nations, and a major interagency effort within the administration of President George H.W. Bush to learn whether the Algerians were following Pakistan in building nuclear weapons with help from China, or were limited to obtaining a small research reactor.
Additionally, the documents show the nuclear facility — called El Salam, or Peace — near Burin, Algeria, was defended by anti-aircraft missiles and anti-aircraft artillery from mid-January 1991 to mid-March 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, another indication of the military nature of the project.
“Algeria and China had not publicly acknowledged their cooperation on this reactor project prior to the appearance of U.S. press reports in April 1991 alleging that China was assisting Algeria in the construction of a nuclear reactor, which could be employed in a future Algerian nuclear-weapons effort,” a National Security Council (NSC) report from September 1991 titled “The Algerian Nuclear Program,” stated.
The report noted that at the time there were major “political uncertainties” in Algeria and that some of the major political parties “favor the development of nuclear weapons.”
The NSC and State Department documents were made public Sept. 10 by the National Security Archive, a private group at George Washington University.
Defense and intelligence officials at the time thought the secret program was in the early stages of developing nuclear arms, based on the Algerian government’s fears of a weapons build-up by the radical regime in neighboring Libya. The anti-aircraft defenses and the facility’s proximity to electrical-power infrastructure also raised suspicions.
The documents, however, show how State Department officials, apparently eager to avoid upsetting Beijing, accepted Chinese government promises that the project was intended only for peaceful nuclear research. One State Department memo dismissed the fears as “the great Algerian nuclear-weapons scare.”
The State Department documents on the program offer no explanation for why the project was kept secret, or was kept outside IAEA controls despite Algeria’s requirement for such controls with its first reactor near Algiers. Algeria also had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the time. It did so later.
Skeptics in the Pentagon and CIA, however, argued during interagency meetings at the time that the facility appeared to be part of a large-scale reactor, perhaps capable of producing 60 megawatts of power, and included a reprocessing facility with military applications because of the six cooling towers at the complex, the documents show.
China and Algeria insisted the reactor would produce 15 megawatts of power and have a limited capacity to produce fissile material for a bomb, according to the documents.
One diplomatic note prepared for presentation to the Swiss government urging it to cancel the sale of nuclear equipment with weapons applications stated in August 1991 that “the original secrecy of the Algerian-Chinese nuclear cooperation and the apparent size of the cooling capacity continue to raise questions in our minds with regard to its nuclear program.”
The documents also stated that the first information about the Chinese reactor sale to Algeria was uncovered in mid-January 1989, but documents on the secret program were “misplaced” until March 1991, when the issue was first investigated.
China’s government has been linked to nuclear weapons programs in Pakistan and Libya. Beijing supplied Pakistan with nuclear-weapons technology and bomb-design information, U.S. intelligence officials said. Chinese language documents showing how to design a small nuclear warhead for a missile were discovered by U.S. officials in Libya in 2003 as part of Tripoli’s nuclear-dismantlement effort. China’s government never explained how the documents got there.
The current Bush administration had suspicions about Algeria’s nuclear program as recently as 2004, officials said. Algeria is a U.S. ally in the global war against terror.