|Concerns that the North African nation of Algeria might be developing a nuclear weapons program erupted after an American surveillance satellite photographed a large nuclear reactor under construction in the desert in 1991.
Although it was widely known the country had been building a small 1 megawatt reactor with the help of Argentina, the new site in an isolated area in the Atlas Mountains some 75 miles south of Algiers was a much larger 15 megawatt project.
"Some U.S. officials at the Pentagon and in the intelligence agencies concluded that the purpose of the reactor site was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. But State Department officials, although they were also concerned, challenged the claim," David Albright and Corey Hinderstein wrote in a 2001 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Algeria's leaders dismissed Western concerns, saying they had contacted both France and Germany before buying the supposedly secret reactor from China. They maintained the Western reaction was more an attempt to keep the Muslim nation from developing its economy as punishment for its support of Iraq in the first Gulf War.
Despite its public denials, the Algerian government did succumb to international pressure and agreed to sign an inspection protocol with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency in 1992, a pact that was further strengthened in a 1996 deal with the IAEA. The country also signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995.
Despite these safeguards and the presence of IAEA inspectors, intelligence agencies in the West continued to express concern over Algeria's efforts.
"The Algerian nuclear program, originally conceived with a clear military purpose, continues to equip itself with the installations necessary to carry out all the activities linked to the complete cycle for obtaining military grade plutonium, a key element in a nuclear arms program," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quoted a 1998 report from Cesid, the Spanish intelligence agency, as saying.
Algeria has dismissed those concerns, saying their program continues to focus on civilian electricity development as well as research and development programs. The IAEA has agreed with Algeria, saying its program is civilian in nature. But the international inspectors maintain the right to visit the suspected sites at any time.