Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2011
Issue No. 1053
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To be nuclear or not?

Whether, and in what form, Egypt pursues civil nuclear energy, there is a need to change decision-making processes for such projects, writes Mohamed Anis Salem*

Over the last five years, Egypt's decision to resort to civil nuclear energy had been presented as an open and shut case. There was no alternative, argued nuclear energy proponents, with the prospect of the population soaring to around 150 million by mid-century, oil and gas reserves set to run out by 2030, and fuel subsidies already eating up over $15 billion annually. With many other countries in the region moving ahead with their nuclear plans, how could Egypt fall behind in this technology? Last year, after some wrangling over the decision to locate the first group of reactors at Dabaa, some 150 kilometres west of Alexandria, an Australian firm was awarded a consultancy contract to help with preparatory work. Tenders would be invited by yearend. Leading bankers confided that they stood ready to provide the required loans while insurance companies offered cover without hesitation.

The whole process of reaching this decision was imbued by the characteristics of the Mubarak regime. Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, for the second time, Egypt had abandoned the civil nuclear energy option (the programme had been previously shelved in the mid-1960s). Some 10 years later, the issue was reopened in the context of media coverage of Iran's nuclear programme, news of contracts by Gulf countries for reactors (called "new build") and conditionalities required for such contracts. Enter Gamal Mubarak, who came out in support of civil nuclear energy at the National Democratic Party's fourth conference in 2006. The Supreme Council for Energy, dormant for the previous 18 years, suddenly reconvened; a 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor was promised within 10 years.

Later, as the government moved slowly towards preparing the tendering documents, several businessmen, one of them a prominent member of the ruling NDP, objected to locating the reactors in the midst of Egypt's summer resorts on the North Coast ("Egypt's Riviera"). Surely, he argued, with alternative locations available, this potentially lucrative source of tourism and foreign currency could be spared for other uses. But pro-nuclear voices responded by accusations that the "government of businessmen", as opposition figures often called it, was bowing to private interest. Government officials, particularly the minister of electricity and energy, supported by leading journalists, demanded a bold decision to go nuclear (civilian), with a nod towards the importance of acquiring knowhow that would balance Israel's present, and Iran's potential, nuclear military capabilities. In the end, Mubarak himself declared that the location would not be changed, confirming that he had seen reactors built next to populated areas in France. Later, this sequence of events and statements would come back to haunt the programme.

The next problem surfaced when scientists and officials working on two small research reactors started trading public accusations of neglect and safety loopholes -- an underlying theme that has continued to play until last week when the Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MEE) banned unauthorised statements. Hardly reassuring, as some observers felt that this augured badly as a sign of the absence of the zero mistakes culture required for nuclear technology.

Three further developments revived Egypt's internal debate on civil nuclear energy. First, the 25 January uprising removed taboos on wider discussions of the issue. Second, the Fukushima disaster and its global fallout made it necessary to re-examine the civil nuclear energy option and the Dabaa decision. Third, concerns increased on the affordability of the project in light of the difficult economic situation in mid-2011.

Several strands of opinion came out in opposition to the project, most importantly those of Mohamed El-Baradei and Farouk El-Baz. In The Age of Deception, his recently published memoires, Nobel laureate El-Baradei, previous head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, dismissed Egypt's nuclear energy programme as part of the plan to position Gamal Mubarak for inheriting the presidency. El-Baz, an ex-NASA geologist, warned against a technology the country was ill prepared for. Weighing in, writer Mohamed Al-Makhzangi objected on environmental grounds while Ambassador Fathi El-Shazli, the coordinator of efforts to develop the north coast, demanded axing the project. A wave of newspaper articles dwelled on the global reaction to Fukushima: if Germany was closing seven reactors and phasing out remaining ones by 2022, if Italy was forsaking its nuclear energy plans, and if Switzerland was taking the same approach, should not Egypt heed these signals? With the country blessed with so much sun and wind, had alternative energy sources been fully explored? What about Germany's "Desertec" proposals to build solar energy farms across North Africa? Then the "NIMBY factor" ("not in my back yard") entered the fray. Writing in Al-Ahram on behalf of the inhabitants of Dabaa village (yes, there are real people involved), one citizen objected that the project overlooked the rights and safety concerns of the local community.

In response, MEE officials and nuclear scientists continued to defend the project on technical grounds. In May, press statements gave the impression that the project was a fait accompli : the capacity of the reactors would be between 900 and 1,650 megawatts; two units would be required, one to be commissioned immediately with another remaining optional; the first unit would become operational by 2020; six companies from six different countries expressed interest and were ready to provide 80 per cent of the required funding of the project's foreign component. Officials discounted the global change of heart on nuclear new build, emphasising that there continued to be some 30 countries with nuclear energy plants, disregarding more than 170 countries living without them.

Most important, the position of officials defending the civil nuclear option did not reflect an understanding of democratic decision-making processes that require a higher level of engagement, transparency and information sharing. In fact, apart from discussing alternative energy strategies, the debate on civil nuclear energy will need to cover seven key challenges:

Funding: Recently, Saudi Arabia has announced a $100 billion nuclear programme, with experts predicting that by the time it is completed it will probably require three times that amount. UAE's four reactors are costing $4 billion each. What are the financial requirements for the Egyptian programme? How will it be funded? What debts will be generated? How will they be repaid? How does this relate to present economic difficulties?

Ownership and management: The role of the state is an essential part of civil nuclear programmes, be it through direct ownership, contracting out to an operator, or committing to buying electricity at a certain price. What is the most appropriate model for Egypt?

Liability and insurance: There is a complex set of international agreements that establish standards for liability in cases of nuclear incidents. Also, experts warn that global insurance capacity is far below requirements and varies in every phase of reactor's lifetime; most seriously, if and when "tail claims" appear long after programmes are closed down.

Technology: With a variety of technologies on the market, which is most suitable to Egypt's circumstances and the post-Fukushima era?

Security: What are the organisational and practical measures that will be taken to ensure the safety of sites, especially in emergency circumstances, including guarding stores of spent fuel long after it has been removed from reactors?

Environmental issues: One of the most sensitive requirements for civil nuclear programmes is conducting an audit of the direct and indirect effects on the vicinity of the reactors, the risks involved in moving, storing and handling nuclear material and longer term factors on the environment. Interestingly, some objections to the proposed location on the North Coast cited the northwest wind direction, which would sweep possible leakages into population centres.

Public opinion: While it is probable that there is continued popular support for Egypt's nuclear programme, there are emerging doubts clouding the horizon, all the more in the post 25 January circumstances of open political debate, suspicion towards decisions by the Mubarak regime and fears of corruption. Recently, following a high profile visit to Egypt by a Westinghouse delegation, WikiLeaks contributed to these concerns by releasing a cable from the US embassy in Cairo reporting on Egypt's Ministry of Electricity decision to reject an approach by Bechtel, a leading American company. Another US cable reported on IAEA concerns about high uranium levels in samples taken near Egyptian reactors, with Israeli advice to use this information to place political pressure on Cairo. These issues apart, there is the question of the loans and debt burden that will be generated by such mega projects. Signing up new international loans will be difficult in the current economic environment, made more complex with the series of trials of the economic captains of Mubarak's regime.

Long before Fukushima, it was doubtful that the so-called "nuclear renaissance", the drive for expanding nuclear energy programmes, would ever take off. Since March this year, the industry has been on the defensive with one country after another shelving its nuclear plans or dissembling its reactors; last week, with a dramatic popular vote, Italy joined this wave.

It is clear that Egypt needs a serious, public dialogue that examines long-term alternative energy strategies, their cost effectiveness and the risks involved in selecting a civil nuclear energy programme. Officials will need to learn to respect public opinion and engage with an open, informed and democratic, dialogue that seeks to settle a strategic issue with intergenerational impact. What will the final outcome be? As the Egyptian saying goes: "The news you pay money for today, you get for free tomorrow."

* The writer is director of Development Works (

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