Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Treading the nuclear path

Will nuclear energy be Egypt's sole alternative? Mohamed El-Sayed seeks answers

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The nuclear alternative can address future energy problems

In October 2007, amidst much fanfare, President Hosni Mubarak announced an ambitious nuclear programme aimed at securing the energy necessary for Egypt's development plans. While some commentators suggested the move was belated, energy policy-makers maintain that the low price of fossil fuel during much of the preceding decade, combined with the horror that swept the world following the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, made the delay understandable.

Yet as oil prices began to nudge towards unprecedented highs in recent years a shift in Egypt's energy security strategy became increasingly inevitable.

"Non-renewable energy sources like oil and gas will be depleted within 15 to 30 years and the cost of generating power from other renewable sources, like wind and solar cells, is still pretty high," says Mohamed El-Kolali, head of the Atomic Energy Agency. "Nor is there any chance of increasing Egypt's hydropower capacity. The nuclear option was the only viable alternative."

Electricity from nuclear plants will be cheaper than that generated by ordinary power plants. And should Egypt complete eight nuclear plants in the next few decades they will be able to provide 20 per cent of the country's energy needs.

"The current capacity of power plants is 23 gigawatts, which should be increased to 63 gigawatts by 2027," says El-Kolali.

The first task the Atomic Energy Agency faces in implementing Egypt's ambitious nuclear programme is to unify the arsenal of laws governing nuclear activities in Egypt.

"After studying regulatory regimes in other countries the agency has prepared a draft nuclear law which is expected to be passed by the People' Assembly at the beginning of 2010," according to El-Kolali.

With the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 still vivid in memories, nuclear safety remains the main preoccupation of Egypt's energy policy-makers. Under the draft law an independent monitoring body affiliated with the presidency will be established to guarantee the safety of nuclear plants.

"Egypt will adopt state-of-the-art technologies and international standards as far as nuclear safety is concerned," El-Kolali stresses.

A couple of years after President Mubarak's announcement, sites for the eight nuclear plants proposed had yet to be identified. Speculation was rife that influential businessmen were trying to stymie the selection of Al-Dabaa on the north coast -- long considered ideal as the location of at least one plant.

Despite the fact that Egypt's nuclear experience dates back to the 1960s, some experts believe that Egyptian cadres will be incapable of running nuclear plants. El-Kolali begs to differ.

"The agency is cooperating with a number of foreign agencies in training Egyptian cadres by conducting on-the-job programmes. Regular workshops are being held under the supervision of the European Union to equip our cadres with the skills and know-how necessary to evaluate and choose the sites of the proposed nuclear plants and supervise their maintenance."

But can Egypt really count on local expertise in running nuclear plants when given current low levels of pay?

"According to the draft nuclear law nuclear plant employees will be highly paid in order to cajole them into staying into Egypt and instead of seeking greener pastures abroad," says El-Kolali, who hopes the proposed pay rise will end a nuclear brain drain that has persisted for the past four decades.

While the construction of a nuclear plant can take anything from 10 to 15 years, El-Kolali remains optimistic the Egypt's first nuclear generated electricity will be entering the national grid a decade after the foundation stone of the first generator is laid. Egypt, though, is unlikely to be able to build its own nuclear facilities. "There are certain countries and international companies with the experience and know-how to build nuclear plants," points out El-Kolali. "Egypt is not expected to build its own facilities."

Treading the nuclear path is no picnic and developing countries trying to develop nuclear programmes invariably face constraints from the major powers. International efforts are underway to create "a nuclear fuel bank" to provide nuclear fuel for developing countries away from the political pressures practised by major powers but sustainable supplies of uranium have yet to be guaranteed.

"We don't have the luxury of spending $5 billion on building a nuclear plant only to find we are blocked from accessing uranium," says El-Kolali.

Following the nuclear cooperation agreement signed between Egypt and Russia in 2008, the latter was identified as Egypt's most likely supplier of nuclear fuel. But no decisions have yet been made, according to El-Kolali. "An international tender will be issued to determine the country and the company that will provide Egypt with uranium."

El-Kolali does not rule out the possibility that Egypt will encounter obstacles similar to those Iran now faces.

"It goes without saying that during the implementation of our nuclear programme foreign powers will try to hamper it. But taking into account that we will depend on major powers in operating our nuclear plants -- they will, after all, be providing Egypt with nuclear fuel -- we have to cooperate with them and deal with whatever obstacles arrive. We have to secure nuclear fuel provision from these countries for the lifetime of our nuclear plants, which should remain operative for 60 years."

Likewise, El-Kolali predicts that as Egypt moves forward in implementing its nuclear programme, so Israeli attempts to spy on it will intensify.

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