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Israel weighing construction of nuclear power plant

By Ari Rabinovitch and Crispian Balmer

JERUSALEM/PARIS (Reuters) - Israel will this week unveil plans to produce nuclear-generated electricity, officials said on Monday, a move that could draw fresh international attention toward its assumed atomic arsenal.

Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told Reuters he will announce at an energy conference in Paris on Tuesday that Israel is officially looking into the possibility of building a nuclear power plant to diversify its energy sector.

Landau said Israel, which has a population of 7.5 million and generates electricity mostly using imported coal and local and imported natural gas, is capable of building a nuclear reactor. But it would prefer to work with other countries.

Israel already has two reactors -- the secretive Dimona facility in the Negev desert, where it is widely assumed to have produced nuclear weapons, and a research reactor, open to international inspection, at Nahal Soreq near Tel Aviv.

Landau had discussed with French Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo the possibility of cooperating on building a nuclear plant, together with neighboring Jordan, his ministry said. The project would be overseen by France and use French technology.

Borloo voiced "great interest" and promised to discuss the idea with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ministry said.

"Israel is interested in being part of the circle of countries producing electricity from nuclear energy," Landau said in a statement. "In a region like the Middle East, we can only depend on ourselves. Building a nuclear reactor to produce electricity will allow Israel to develop energy independence."

"Nuclear technology has many positive uses that are able to serve peaceful purposes and purposes of cooperation," he said.

FRENCH COOPERATION

In the 1950s, France helped Israel build the Dimona reactor, a project spearheaded by current Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Landau said in an interview with Reuters that Israel has the scientists and infrastructure needed to build a nuclear reactor for producing energy, but it would be more cost efficient to work with a more experienced country.

Cooperation with France, he said, "would be perfect."

Israel neither confirms nor denies having weapons of mass destruction, under an "ambiguity" policy billed as warding off foes while avoiding provocations that can spark arms races.

Unlike other countries in the region, Israel has not signed the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which curbs the spread of nuclear technologies with bomb-making potential.

Yet Israel does have a delegation at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N. watchdog.

Landau said it would not be a problem for Israel to build a civilian reactor without signing the NPT:

"There are many countries who are not signatories to the NPT and they are doing fine. There are others which are signatories and the world community did not really take proper care against proliferation," he said.

Iran has signed the NPT but its nuclear energy plans are at the center of accusations, from Israel as well as Western powers, that Tehran is using the programme to develop weapons.

Asked whether IAEA inspectors would supervise the building of an Israeli plant, Landau said: "We take care very well of our own needs and don't need inspectors."

Landau said Israel has been working on plans for decades and it has chosen to build the nuclear power plant in an area in the Negev called Shivta.

Israeli officials have said the Jewish state hopes to have a functioning nuclear power plant by 2020 or 2025.

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