Cablegate: Tunisia: Getting Ready for Nuclear Power

Published: Wed 3 Dec 2008 08:52 AM
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1. (SBU) GOT officials expressed strong interest in U.S.
civil nuclear cooperation during the November 19 visit of
Ambassador Jackie Wolcott, Special Envoy for Nuclear
Nonproliferation, and her interagency delegation. Wolcott
discussed opportunities for increased technical exchanges,
human capital development, and other areas of cooperation and
assistance. GOT representatives provided the Wolcott
delegation with a detailed overview of Tunisia's approach to
nuclear power development, and its plans for legislation
development and the establishment of a regulatory agency.
They confirmed the GOT will soon undertake a feasibility
study with an eye on constructing a first nuclear power plant
by 2020-2023. The GOT officials asked the delegation to
organize a seminar early in 2009 on options and opportunities
for civil nuclear cooperation with the United States, as has
recently been done by Canada, South Africa, and France. End
Who's On First
2. (U) Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Jackie
Wolcott, and a delegation of technical experts from the
Department of State, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and
the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security
Administration (NNSA) exchanged views and identified
potential areas for cooperation with GOT counterparts during
a November 19 visit to Tunis. Ambassador accompanied the
Special Envoy in her meetings with the Minister of Higher
Education and the state-owned utility STEG (Tunisian
Electricity and Gas Company). In addition to Ambassador
Wolcott, the delegation included:
-- Alex Burkart, Department of State
-- Marc Humphrey, Department of State
-- Michael Mayfield, NRC
-- Matthew Van Sickle, NNSA
-- Moussaddek Bissani, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Embassy ESTH officer accompanied the delegation to all
3. (U) Following a high-level orientation meeting chaired by
the GOT Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research and
Technology Lazhar Bououni, the delegation followed up with
more detailed discussions with representatives of the
National Center for Nuclear Science and Technology (CNSTN),
the Ministry of Public Health, and STEG. A common thread
throughout the meetings was GOT interest in increased
bilateral cooperation, particularly in the area of human
resource development, to support its goal of deploying a
nuclear power plant by 2020 - 2023.
Higher Education Takes the Lead on Nuclear
4. (SBU) As Tunisia's permanent representative to the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Minister of
Higher Education currently plays a key role in the pursuit of
nuclear power in Tunisia. To provide the delegation an
overview of Tunisia's current plans, Minister Bououni
included the following officials in his meeting with Amb.
-- Abderrahman Boukricha, Director General of International
Cooperation, Ministry of Higher Education;
-- Rabah Jerad, Deputy Managing Director, STEG;
-- Mougou Abdelaziz, President, Institute for Agriculture,
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Research and Higher Education;
-- Zohra Azzouz Berriche, Deputy Director of Development and
Projects, CNSTN; and
-- Hichem Abdesselem, Director General of Technical
Cooperation, Ministry of Public Health.
5. (SBU) Minister Bououni recalled his meeting with
Ambassador Wolcott at the 2008 IAEA General Conference in
October, and thanked her for fulfilling her promise to bring
an expert-level delegation to Tunisia. Noting that nuclear
power was a "very important project," Bououni identified
three priorities on the road to its deployment. First,
Tunisia needs to collect more technical information about
available technologies (in particular, that from U.S. firms);
second, it must identify opportunities for nuclear-related
human resource development (e.g., through workshops,
exchanges, or other cooperation, such as that already in
place between Tunisia and France); and third, it aims to
reassure the international community about its intentions to
develop nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes and with
appropriate safeguards.
6. (SBU) Minister Bououni asked if the USG could convene a
seminar, to exhibit U.S. technologies and to discuss more
broadly areas of potential civil nuclear cooperation, in
early 2009 in Tunis. Similar seminars had already been
organized by Canada and South Africa, he explained, and
France would hold its own the following week (November 26-27,
2008). Wolcott replied that she would seek to arrange this,
and Ambassador Godec confirmed that the Embassy would be
pleased to assist in its organization. Wolcott also outlined
for Bououni several opportunities for U.S.-Tunisian
cooperation in the area of capacity building, such as through
an NNSA-organized human resources workshop planned in March
2009 in Rabat, through an embryonic university exchange
program with U.S. Nuclear Engineering departments, through
regulatory fellowships with the NRC, and through Fulbright
exchanges. Wolcott also promoted the idea of an orientation
visit (sponsored by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency,
USTDA), which would allow Tunisian experts to consult with
representatives of nuclear authorities, industry, utilities,
and laboratories in the United States. At the meeting's
close, Bououny identified Director General Boukricha as the
appropriate point of contact for nuclear-energy-related
Nuclear Science Research Center - Technopole
7. (SBU) In a meeting at CNSTN, Nafaa Reguigui, Deputy
Director of Nuclear Applications, explained the Center's
broad array of research efforts aimed at modernizing
Tunisia's use of nuclear applications. Established in 1993,
the Center features research in radiopharmacology, isotope
hydrology, microbiology, agriculture (e.g., sterile insect
technique), and nuclear instrumentation. In addition, the
Center is working to support the GOT's pursuit of nuclear
energy, through training and technical support for the
development of a national nuclear legal framework, for the
preparation of nuclear-related bid documents, and for a
feasibility study (conducted by STEG and the Ministry of
Industry, see para 16).
8. (SBU) Reguigui said that the GOT has already engaged the
French, having recently signed a nuclear cooperation MOU
during President Sarkozy's visit in April 2008. (Note: this
MOU renewed an existing 1995 agreement and would open the
door for cooperation with France's new nuclear development
agency AFNI, see reftel. End Note.) He confirmed that the
French Embassy would hold a two-day conference November 26-27
on nuclear energy, which would feature Tunisia's plans,
introduce French nuclear policy and technology, and allow
detailed discussions on nuclear safety, safeguards, fuel
cycle issues, site selection, and human resources. The
seminar would target a non-specialist audience of about
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100-150 people, similar to past seminars held with the
Canadians and the South Africans, Reguigui explained.
9. (SBU) Reguigui also explained that the GOT is evaluating
the possibility of investing in a research reactor to
complement their emerging nuclear research efforts and
provide a training ground for nuclear experts, and asked the
delegation's opinion of its necessity. In response, Burkart
explained that while valuable, this step could be preceded by
a "virtual" research reactor program (which would allow for
internet-based experiments with a research reactor in another
country) or by participation in a regional program. Reguigui
also expressed interest in expanding educational cooperation,
to which the delegation briefly described a number of
potential projects with the NRC, NNSA, and State (through the
IAEA). To provide more detail on these and other areas of
cooperation, the delegation offered a document summarizing
U.S. cooperation programs. However, Reguigui noted that all
decisions will be made by more senior officials.
Compliance with International Standards
10. (SBU) At CNSTN, the delegation also met with a
representative of Tunisia's nascent regulatory authority
responsible for international obligations and safeguards, who
underscored the GOT's determination to comply with all
international nuclear standards and obligations. He
confirmed that Tunisia has a comprehensive safeguards
agreement with the IAEA and has signed the Additional
Protocol. As part of a new "nuclear energy act" being
developed, Tunisia intends to ratify the latter by the end of
2009. The safeguards official also reported that Tunisia, a
party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear
Material (CPPNM), intends to ratify its 2005 amendment in the
coming months. Similarly, Tunisia is preparing to ratify the
(signed) Convention on Nuclear Safety. Tunisia is currently
studying the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel
Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management,
as well as the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability (though
it is not yet considering the Convention on Supplementary
Compensation for Nuclear Damage). Lastly, the safeguards
official confirmed that Tunisia is compliant with its
obligations under UNSCR 1540 and the IAEA Code of Conduct for
Radiological Sources (and had submitted the requisite
reporting on the former in October). He indicated the GOT
will first focus on developing its own internal legal
framework within which to handle nuclear-related issues. In
response, Wolcott noted that the United States has recently
provided comments on other countries' draft nuclear laws, and
stated that we could provide the same service if Tunisia were
willing to provide us with a draft.
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Ministry of Public Health ) To Regulate or Not To Regulate?
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11. (SBU) At the Ministry of Public Health, the delegation
met with Dr. Mohamed Ben Laiba, Director General of Public
Health and Inspector General. After the Wolcott delegation
briefly outlined potential areas of civil nuclear
cooperation, Laiba highlighted Tunisia's growing medical
tourism industry, which most recently provided services to
more than 110,000 tourists, more than half of whom were
Europeans. Noting that the nuclear domain is "special," he
emphasized GOT interest in upgrading its nuclear-related
legislation and further building its human capital (e.g.,
scientists, doctors and engineers). Laiba also reaffirmed
GOT interest in cooperation, and when asked what role the
Ministry of Public Health would play in nuclear energy
policy, he answered that that topic is under discussion at
high levels.
12. (SBU) The Ministry of Public Health's National
Radioprotection Center (CNRP) was created under the Ministry
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of Public Health in 1981 to provide for a secure, safe
environment for the use of nuclear technologies used to treat
and diagnose patients. CNRP Director Dr. Latifa Ben Omran
stated that the Center is involved in many sectors, including
agriculture, industry, and research, but nuclear medicine
comprised 75% of the its responsibilities. Specifically, the
center's responsibilities include (1) controlling the use of
radioactive sources; (2) licensing the import, transfer, and
transportation of radioactive sources; (3) inspecting
radioactive source installations and activities; (4)
monitoring employees who handle radioactive materials; (5)
irradiating food and agricultural exports and imports; (6)
monitoring scrap metal exports; (7) securing standards
laboratories; (8) training users of radioactive materials;
(9) overseeing radioactive waste handling; (10) measuring
household radiation levels; and (11) rehabilitating
contaminated sites. Ben Omran added that CNRP currently
cooperates with the IAEA, WHO, and NNSA, via a signed MOU
with the NNSA's Global Threat Reduction Initiative for a
"Search and Secure" project. (Comment: NNSA's "Search and
Secure" project is currently on hold pending resolution of
Tunisian contracting and banking issues. NNSA expressed its
desire for the resolution of these issues so that work could
continue. End Comment.)
13. (SBU) Dr. Naoufel Somrani, the Deputy Director of
Emergency Response, explained the GOT's interest in upgrading
its nuclear emergency preparedness capacity as part of its
overall nuclear strategy. He highlighted Tunisia's need for
technical expertise in developing first responders to nuclear
disaster as well as strengthening the health services
infrastructure. Finally, an official from the Ministry's
Research Department commented on the importance of
sensitizing the local population on the benefits of ionizing
radiation, such as those of the Sterile Insect Technique
14. (SBU) Notwithstanding all of these programs centered on
the use of radioactive sources, Dr. Hichem Abdesselem,
Director General of the Ministry's Technical Cooperation
Unit, commented that in the future the Ministry will need to
"prepare for the new context" of nuclear power. As evidence
by joint programs with the IAEA, WHO, and NNSA, the Ministry
is "wide open to cooperation in this field" and "ready to
develop new activities." When asked by the delegation if the
Ministry's regulatory oversight would be expanded to cover
nuclear power or if a new agency would be established for
this purpose, Ben Laiba conceded that this is a decision that
still remains to be addressed.
The Public Utility - Future Home of Nuclear?
15. (SBU) The delegation also met with the Managing Director,
Othman Ben Afra, and Deputy Managing Director, Rabah Jerad,
of the Tunisian Electric and Gas Company (STEG). Ben Afra
stated that although STEG has been considering nuclear power
for nearly 25 years, only recently has the confluence of high
oil prices and the perceived need to diversify energy
supplies prompted the political commitment to this
technology. In November 2006, President Ben Ali made the
formal decision to pursue nuclear power with an aim of
deploying its first nuclear plant by 2020-23, at which point
the national electric grid, with an estimated total capacity
of 7000 MW, would be large enough to accommodate a 700-1000
MW unit. STEG and the GOT are now considering how to
proceed, and are inviting other governments (namely Canada,
South Africa, France, and now the U.S.) to provide
information and support for the Tunisian nuclear program.
Wolcott touched on the range of programs available from the
USG and said she would seek to organize a seminar for more
detailed discussions in Tunis in the near future.
16. (SBU) Ben Afra noted that Tunisia was preparing a
three-phase road map, which would begin with a technical and
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economic feasibility study. Jerad explained that STEG was
preparing to launch a tender for this study, to begin next
year and conclude by 2011. Phase 2 would call for a tender
for plant construction, followed by a third phase of plant
realization. At this stage, STEG is planning to be operator
of the plant, which would be located at one of two potential
sites: one in the south at Skhira and one on the northern
coast at Bizerte. When asked how the GOT was evaluating
financing options, Ben Afra answered that no specific
financing models had been selected, thought the GOT was
assuming a cost of $4.5-6 billion for a one-unit plant.
First, the GOT wants to solidify the legal framework, prepare
the intellectual capacity, and identify the most suitable
location. When asked how nuclear power would be regulated in
Tunisia, the STEG officials stated that a proposal is now
being considered by the GOT which would establish a
regulatory body under the Prime Minister, independent of the
"strategic" or promotional body. The regulatory body, they
added, must be in place prior to final site selection and the
launch of the construction tender (i.e., by 2011). Jerad
noted that a recently signed MOU with the French would
facilitate training for ten Tunisian nuclear scientists,
though he conceded this was not enough to meet the stated
goal of deployed nuclear power around 2020. Therefore,
additional training in the United States "would be welcome."
Ben Afra added, "we do not want to limit ourselves to France
only, we want to expand our horizons" as recommended by the
IAEA. He also recounted that some of the people previously
sent to France for training had stayed and recognized that
this would be a continuing problem in developing and
retaining human resources. At the close of the meeting, Ben
Afra noted that the head of STEG's nuclear power project,
Mustapha Fekih Ali, was the appropriate point of contact for
follow-up discussions.
17. (SBU) Though Tunisia is in the very early days of
establishing a nuclear program, it is clearly serious in the
wake of its 2006 decision and subsequently looking for a
diverse supply of international support and assistance.
During Ambassador Wolcott's visit, the Tunisians expressed a
clear interest in civil nuclear cooperation with the United
States. They also made clear their stated intentions to
adhere to international standards on safety and security and
to lay the necessary groundwork (such as thorough nuclear
legislation, a proper regulatory framework, and sufficient
human resources) to responsibly deploy nuclear power. It
remains to be seen how quickly these elements can be
18. (SBU) The delegation's visit reemphasized that the GOT
remains strongly interested in US cooperation on science and
technology. As is usual GOT procedure, meetings were only
granted at the last minute. In this case, positively, four
substantive meetings were arranged, perhaps facilitated in
part by the groundwork laid during the meeting between Amb.
Wolcott and Minister Bououni in Vienna in October.
Throughout the visit, the Tunisians exhibited great interest
in exploring options for civil nuclear cooperation with the
United States. Overall, the delegation's visit was a
success, but Post recommends robust follow-up to ensure that
no momentum is lost.
19. (U) Ambassador Wolcott and her delegation cleared this
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