VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog is investigating the discovery of traces of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear research site in Egypt, according to a restricted International Atomic Energy Agency report obtained by Reuters.
It did not specify whether the particles were weapons-grade -- enriched to a level high enough for use as fuel for an atom bomb, as opposed to fuel for some nuclear reactors. An IAEA official reached by Reuters said this was being checked.
The report, which described global IAEA work in 2008 to verify compliance with non-proliferation rules, said the highly enriched uranium (HEU) traces turned up in environmental swipe samples taken at the Inshas nuclear research site in 2007-08.
The HEU was discovered alongside particles of low-enriched uranium (LEU), the type used for nuclear power plant fuel.
Egypt had explained to the IAEA that it believed the HEU "could have been brought into the country through contaminated radio-isotope transport containers," the May 5 report said.
The U.N. watchdog's inspectors had not yet verified the source of the particles, it said, but there were no indications that Egypt's clarification was not correct.
The IAEA was in any case continuing an investigation to establish the provenance of the traces, with further test sampling planned in the vicinity near the capital Cairo.
The IAEA is sensitive to possible nuclear proliferation in the Middle East because of inquiries into allegations of secret weapons-oriented nuclear activity in Iran and Syria, which both countries deny, and the 2003 exposure of a covert atomic bomb program in Libya, since scrapped.
In February 2005, an IAEA report chided Egypt for repeatedly failing to declare nuclear sites and materials but said inspectors had found no sign of an atom bomb program.
At the time, IAEA diplomats said Egypt's breaches appeared minor compared to those of Iran and South Korea, both of which experimented with uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing -- technologies applicable to nuclear bomb-making.
The new report said Egypt told the IAEA in 2004 that its atomic energy agency lacked the means to ensure "effective control" over all nuclear work in the country. A presidential decree was issued in 2006 to strengthen the agency's powers.
Egyptian regulators then mounted a state-wide investigation and detected previously undocumented nuclear items, including depleted uranium, a by-product of enrichment used as a hardening agent in ordnance or as radiation-shielding material.
The report said Egypt had turned over information about previously undeclared nuclear work and submitted design information about the Inshas facility, a hydrometallurgy pilot plant and a radio-isotope production site.
Egypt's statements were judged consistent with IAEA findings and there were no more outstanding questions, it said.
In 2007 Egypt said it aimed to build several atomic reactors to meet rising energy demand and has since received nuclear cooperation offers from China, Russia, France and Kazakhstan.
Many Arab states have similar ambitions, to offset high fossil-fuel costs and cut emissions to combat climate change.
Industry analysts have suggested the United States could be willing to help Egypt develop a nuclear program if it pledged never to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel -- both proliferation-prone processes -- on its own soil.
Egypt ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1981 but not the IAEA's 1997 Additional Protocol that gives inspectors the right to make intrusive, short-notice inspections of nuclear facilities and other sites not declared as nuclear.