Egypt reactor failed in April but no radiation leak, says nuclear chief

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's 50-year-old, Russian built nuclear reactor suffered a breakdown last April, though no radiation leaked out, the head of the country's atomic program told a local paper Tuesday.

Mohammed el-Qulali of the Egyptian Nuclear Organization told the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that the 2-megawatt research reactor failed and was shut down after a cooling pump broke.

He blamed the breakdown on a lack of coordination between the engineers in charge and those responsible for maintaining the safeguards.

"The operation did not go according to the rules and there was over confidence by some (engineers), which led to such a sizable problem," he said.

Experts from the U.N. nuclear watchdog later visited the site and issued recommendations for upgrading the reactor.

The news comes as Egypt is preparing to built its first nuclear power plant at a cost of between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak first announced plans to launch a number of nuclear power plants in 2007, reviving a program that was publicly shelved in the aftermath of the 1986 accident at a Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl.

He said the new plants would diversify the country's energy resources and take pressure off its oil and gas reserves, adding that that the reactor was for power-generating purposes only and there was no interest in developing weapons.

In August, Electricity Minister Hassan Younis said the site for new reactor would be at El-Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria and the project could take 10 years.

Egypt began its nuclear program in 1954 and in 1961 it acquired the 2-megawatt research reactor from the Soviet Union. Argentina later helped build a 22-megawatt one in the 1990s. Both are located in the Nile Delta north of Cairo.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Egypt had conducted small scale nuclear experiments for research purposes for the past four decades.

Like many other Arab countries, however, Egypt is said to be concerned about Israeli nuclear capabilities

The United States has said it would not object to the program as long as Egypt adhered to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA guidelines.