Several Egyptian scientists were involved in a series of nuclear experiments at home and abroad over the past three decades, but there is no evidence that the Arab nation has a nuclear weapons program, according to diplomats familiar with the findings of U.N. nuclear inspectors.
Egypt is not under special investigation, the sources said, although inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are awaiting the results of tests on several environmental samples taken during recent visits to government-run nuclear facilities around Cairo.
Although the scope of the Egyptian work is not yet fully known, Western diplomats who have been briefed on the IAEA's inquiry said there is no evidence of uranium enrichment or plutonium separation -- the two hallmarks of a nuclear weapons program.
IAEA inspectors are also satisfied that the experiments, which came to light in scientific journals published by the Egyptian scientists years after the work was done, were not directed or organized by the government, diplomats said.
Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the IAEA, would not comment on the findings.
Some of the experiments in question, including work with uranium compounds, were conducted during the 1970s and 1980s, and some were done outside Egypt, according to diplomats who would discuss the case only on the condition of anonymity.
"The work was sporadic and involved different guys who in some cases were involved in experiments abroad as part of regular scientific exchanges," one diplomat said. One experiment was conducted in France and another in Turkey, and neither experiment was part of weapons programs in either country.
White House and State Department spokesmen said they had no information on the IAEA findings, which were the subject of an Associated Press report yesterday. "We're sure they will look into this matter, and I would just point out that Egypt is a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Egypt joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1982, promising to forgo nuclear weapons and to supply the IAEA with a written declaration of past nuclear work. But diplomats said Egypt left out some details then, and should have informed the agency about new ones.
The test results on the samples, expected back in February and March, will help investigators determine when the experiments were conducted and what materials were used.
In September, the agency began looking into the Egyptian work during a routine check, which it conducts in countries that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Egyptian officials said publicly then that there was no nuclear weapons program in the country and that they were working with the IAEA.
A diplomat familiar with the investigation said Egypt has been cooperative and has allowed agency inspectors to visit sites, interview scientists and review government documentation related to the country's atomic energy program. Officials also said the Egyptian nuclear work is not near the scale of work in Iran, North Korea, Libya or even South Korea, and that the IAEA's concerns are over reporting procedures, not clandestine programs.
Some diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, expressed concern that the case may be used to embarrass the agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who is Egyptian. ElBaradei is seeking a third term, but the Bush administration, which has clashed repeatedly with the agency over Iraq, wants him to step down in June.