Egypt Going Nuclear

After decades of delay Egypt will begin building its first nuclear power plant by the end of this year. The decision was taken by President Hosni Mubarak who issued a presidential decree on 25 August confirming that Al-Dabaa, east of Marsa Matrouh, had been selected as the site of the nuclear generator.

Egypt’s ambitious nuclear programme will see eight nuclear plants constructed by 2028. The first will begin operation in 2019, at an estimated cost of $4 billion, followed by another three by 2025.

As early as 1983 the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority identified Al-Dabaa as its preferred site for a nuclear power plant. Soon after the government announced an international tender for building the power station. By June 1985 the Australian government had signed an agreement with Egypt to provide uranium. At the same time Egypt signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with France which included French help in constructing two 100-megawatt reactors at a cost of LE1 billion.

French experts confirmed that Al-Dabaa was the most appropriate site. Egypt then asked for the assistance of international community in financing the project only to be blocked by US lobbying of international bodies to reject Egypt’s application for funding. The project was finally put on hold in 1986, following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

By the beginning of the 1990s the need to generate electricity from nuclear power was again being talked up, only to be disregarded once again when the Ministry of Petroleum announced the discovery of new natural gas reserves, sufficient to meet 80 to 90 per cent of Egypt’s energy needs. In comparison, going nuclear suddenly appeared too costly by far.

In 2004 Al-Dabaa once again hit the headlines, a result of disputes between the Atomic Energy Authority and a group of businessmen, led by NDP member Ibrahim Kamel, who were seeking to develop the area as a holiday resort.

Kamel’s plans appeared to have been scotched when, in 2006, Gamal Mubarak, the chairman of the NDP Policies Committee, announced that Egypt was resuscitating its nuclear programme. The news was confirmed in October 2007 when President Mubarak made a speech announcing that Egypt would resume its peaceful nuclear programme.

“We believe energy security is the key to building the future of our country and is an integral component of Egypt’s national security system,” Mubarak had said.

In press interviews before the recent presidential decision about Al-Dabaa Kamel once again criticised the choice of Al-Dabaa as a possible site.

“It is an insignificant step, but a very expensive project that will generate some electricity,” Kamel said. He warned that “Al-Dabaa could become another Chernobyl, causing catastrophic environmental damage to the city of Cairo”.

Kamel owns a huge plot of land between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh, and has plans to build a private airport to service what are envisaged as resolutely up-market resorts. When the Al-Dabaa project slid into limbo Kamel attempted to annex the site and amalgamate it with his own landholdings.

“There is nothing sacrosanct about the location,” says Kamel. “It is not a matter of life and death. There are a number of possible alternative sites for a nuclear plant.”

Kamel argues that the situation on Egypt’s North Coast has changed dramatically since 1983. What was desert land in the 1980s is now ripe for real estate development.

In a recent interview with the daily Al-Masry Al-Yom, Kamel insisted that he is not challenging the government. “I am not contesting the state’s decision to produce electricity through nuclear power. I am simply asking for the debate on the site to be revisited. We should consider alternatives before rushing headlong into a mistake.”

The director of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority Mohamed Taha El-Kolali told Al-Ahram Weekly that Al-Dabaa had been confirmed as the most appropriate site by several different studies conducted since the 1980s.

“The nature of the soil in Dabaa is convenient for building nuclear plants. It is not threatened by earthquakes and it is close to the sea,” he explained. “The nuclear plant could be used to desalinate sea water and provide the North Coast and Marsa Matrouh with potable water.”

He dismissed claims about the possibility of radioactive leaks as “history”, pointing out that Japan, Korea, the US and France were all manufacturing new generations of nuclear plants that could operate for up to 60 years before being decommissioned.

“The world has succeeded in developing nuclear stations capable of avoiding accidents like Chernobyl. Enhanced safety measures prevent any radioactive leaks and guarantee an automatic closure of stations if workers lose control. In France, for instance, nuclear reactors are now found close to resorts and residential areas,” said El-Kolali.

In March the People’s Assembly approved new laws regulating nuclear activities, lending substance to the strategic decision taken by the president. The law meets the conditions for the use of nuclear technology set out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguard guide.

According to the NPT, any peaceful nuclear programme must be committed to what are commonly referred to as the 3S’s — safeguards, security and safety.

Egypt’s power generating capacity currently stands at 23,500 megawatts which, during the unusually hot summer, has proved insufficient. There have been intermittent power cuts across the country. Egypt aims to add 58,000 megawatts of capacity to the grid by 2028. Each nuclear station should generate an average of 1,000 megawatts, while 3,000 megawatts are expected to be generated from other renewable energy resources.

After the final selection of Al-Dabaa as the site, the international bidding process for building the project is scheduled to open in December.

“We are working hard with an international consultancy firm to prepare the international tender specifications and start the bidding process by December,” says Yassin Ibrahim, head of the Nuclear Plant Authority.

In 2009 the Australian engineering firm WorleyParsons won a $200 million contract to help the Egyptian government select locations and reactor technology, ensure quality control and train personnel and provide technical services under a 10-year deal.

Possible locations in Marsa Matrouh, 240km west of Alexandria, and on the Red Sea, are being studied for future nuclear plants.

MOHAMED ABDEL-BAKY writes for Al-Ahram Weekly.