The annual general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in September is expected to give its blessing for further development work on desalination plants powered by nuclear reactors.

The scheme, first aired in the 1960s, was revived in 1989 and has received strong Middle East backing. The Vienna-based IAEA has secured $575,000 and the services of two experts from interested parties in the project. These are Libya, Argentina, Jordan, Canada, the Tunis-based Arab Atomic Energy Agency and the US. The money is to be used for further research and the establishment of a pilot nuclear desalination plant, possibly to be built in the Middle East. The five member states of the Arab Maghreb Union have filed a request to the IAEA for permission to conduct a regional feasibility study about nuclear desalination for North Africa.

The IAEA says it has identified several sites for pilot desalination plants that will have output of 50,000-720,000 cubic metres a day by 2000. Sources close to the project say that some Western states are not enthusiastic about allowing more developing countries to acquire nuclear technology.

Delegates who attended a conference about nuclear power in June organised by the IAEA said that some Egyptian scientists are interested in reviving plans for a nuclear-powered desalination plant in Sinai to be developed jointly with Israel.