Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Great power with great risks

The jury is still out on whether to develop nuclear or renewable energy for commercial purposes, as Sherine Nasr finds out

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A look at the world's energy forecasts for the next few decades can raise serious concerns about the security of supplies in countries which are constantly growing in use and demand. "The world is facing an era of depleting energy resources," revealed Ahmed Hassan Marei, former head of the reactors department at the Nuclear Energy Authority. Marei noted that estimates show that oil supplies will drop by the year 2020, while those for natural gas are more reassuring -- but only to a certain extent. "World gas demand will surpass supply by next year," he stated. "In the meantime, world gas reserves are expected to decline by 2025."

According to British Petroleum (BP)'s annual report for 2006, the world's proven oil reserves were estimated at approximately 1,188.6 billion barrels (bb), while proven natural gas reserves were estimated at 179.5 trillion cubic metres (tcm). In the Arab region, Saudi Arabia tops the list of proven oil and gas reserves, estimated at 264.2 bb and 243.6 ton cubic feets(tcf), respectively. It is followed by Iraq with 115 bb and 111.9tcf and Kuwait at 101.5 bb and 55.5 tcf.

In Egypt, experts believe that more effective measures should be taken to contain the depleting energy resources dilemma. According to the above report, Egypt's oil and gas reserves are estimated at 3.7 bb and 70 tcf, respectively. In the meantime, the country's economic development outlook between 2008 and 2022 calls for aggressive growth targets. The electrical energy forecasts reveal that electricity demand will increase from 20,000 megawatts (MW) in 2006- 2007 to 54,000 MW by the year 2027.

"We will continue using our natural resources, but we should conserve these resources for future generations," noted Marei. But this is easier said than done.

The challenges facing the country are both enormous and contradictory. While Egypt seeks to maintain high growth rates through enhancing competitiveness of its industries, it has to guarantee energy security, ensure the reliability of domestic energy supply and reduce dependence on imported energy. How not to jeopardise the country's future sustainable development and prosperity, while continuing to rely on rapidly depleting oil and gas resources, is a problem which has not been settled yet.

"An important ingredient to this equilibrium is to design intelligent future strategies for sustainable energy, and to increase the diversity of energy resources through adopting an energy mix," according to Marei. He added that the whole world is looking at alternative and nuclear energy, as should Egypt.

A favourable energy mix policy has already been laid down to meet these challenges. The components vary, including raising energy efficiency and conservation to target 20 per cent of the total generated capacity by the year 2027; intensifying oil and gas exploration; interconnecting with the international electric grid; strategically shifting reliance on traditional energy sources, namely oil and gas; using an energy mix with renewable energy (RE), particularly wind, contributing 20 per cent of the total generated capacity by 2027, while nuclear energy generating 4,000 to 6,000 MW by the same year.

In 2006, Egypt announced its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes to meet growing energy demands. Plans are to build six 2,000 megawatt reactors to generate half of the country's electricity, which would release the country from its dependence on natural gas. A tender for the construction of Egypt's first nuclear power plant is expected to be announced this year. "The project is worth $1.5-2 billion with long-term commitment requirements through planning, operation, waste management and decommissioning," disclosed Marei.

For advocators of this type of energy, Egypt's nuclear programme means saving 350 billion cubic feets(cbf) of natural gas every year, introducing new technologies, increasing the engineering and industrial capabilities in the country and developing better technical, research and management skills. This is in addition to the economic and political benefits of the programme, not only for Egypt but the Arab region at large.

But the question of nuclear safety has been underlined by other experts, who strongly believe that other alternatives have to be reconsidered before tapping the nuclear issue. "Looking at the two largest nuclear accidents, the 1979 Three Mill Island in the USA and the world's worst of Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, it becomes evident that a safety culture was the critical outcome of these two massive accidents," asserted Hatem El-Ayat, professor of mechanical engineering at the American University in Cairo.

According to El-Ayat, the consequences of both accidents are both massive and incurable. "Over 99 per cent of Belarus is still radioactive and there have been immense agricultural and environmental impacts," he continued. "Children suffer the most and the destroyed reactor, encased in a massive concrete structure, still represents a potential risk."

El-Ayat insists that "safety culture is lacking in Egypt" since there is no readiness for the management of severe accidents, intervention criteria, emergency procedures and medical treatment of afflicted people, among other reactor safety criteria. "We have to remember that 60 per cent of the Egyptian population, which interprets into 48 million, are below 15 years of age, and they are the most vulnerable," he reasoned.

Dealing with nuclear waste is another issue of great importance. Different techniques include fuel rod storage pool, dry cask and storage containers. In the USA, for example, 1,000 feet tunnels have been dug under the mountain in Nevada to store nuclear waste. "Egypt's temporary storage is not the answer, and doing nothing about it will not solve the problem," commented El-Ayat, adding that nuclear waste remains radioactive for some 10,000 years.

He strongly emphasised that nuclear energy is not cheap compared to other renewable alternatives if the cost of cleaning is calculated. "Accidents can happen and will happen," El-Ayat stressed. "Can we manage a nuclear accident if it occurs? Can we handle nuclear waste safely? The answer to these two questions is crucial."

At the same time, Egypt's wealth of wind and solar energy should not be overlooked. According to Amin Mubarak, former head of the Energy and Industry Committee at the People's Assembly, noted that Zaafarana on the Red Sea coast is phenomenal for its wind speeds, estimated at 10.5 metres per second. "This can produce twice as much energy as a turbine placed in Europe," Mubarak revealed. He added that the Gulf of Suez has the highest wind energy, with potentials of 20,000 MW in this area.

"Egypt is planning to generate 20 per cent of its total electricity demand through renewables by 2020," according to Mubarak, who pointed out that Egypt should work intensely on developing its RE resources during the next decade while the first nuclear plant is being built.

According to him, it won't be long before 50 per cent of Europe's electricity will come from solar energy produced in the Middle East. "We can produce solar energy at a price ranging 3-4 cents," he stated. "This is very competitive."

RE expert Amr Serageddin agrees, stating that RE is becoming more competitive against nuclear and fossil fuel. "The cost of RE has been continuously declining, and RE power stations take much less time to build," Serageddin argued. He proposed that a solar chimney plant can utilise the country's solar energy to the utmost, and is very cost effective. "It requires no water, works around the clock, its construction needs primitive technology and it creates many job opportunities," he stated.

He explained that to make them economically viable, they have to be built very large, which is suitable in a country where flat, unused desert terrain is found across the country. This model has already been successfully utilised in Australia, USA, China and India.

Despite the greener and less costly option of RE, Marei remains unconvinced. "Is 20 per cent of the country's total energy demand generated by RE enough?" he pressed. "Will we buy the rest of our fuel needs?" The former MP argued that if India already has 33 nuclear reactors and is planning to build another 40 reactors, "should we not try our best? I think we should."

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