Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

At risk?

The restarting of Egypt's Inshas nuclear facility continues to face difficulties, including allegations of radioactive leaks, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

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Preparations are afoot at Inshas to restart the nuclear reactors

Controversy over alleged radiation leaks from the Egyptian nuclear research reactors at Inshas continued for a second week this week with officials strongly denying the reports and saying that all the country's nuclear agencies were working to the highest professional standards in order to prevent any possibility of radiation risks.

The controversy erupted when the Al-Dostour website published a report early last week saying that at least 10 cubic metres of radioactive liquid had leaked from the Inshas nuclear reactors on 25 May, putting civilians living in the Sharqiya and Qalioubiya governorates in danger.

The government responded by issuing a statement denying any radiation leak, saying that "several media outlets have been spreading false information" regarding the Inshas research plant.

The statement added that Egyptian Nuclear Safety Agency (ENSA) inspectors had visited the reactors on Sunday, and measurements had indicated that radiation levels at the site were within the allowed range.

The statement also said that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had visited the facility last month and had also taken samples and radiation measurements. They too had not observed an increase in radiation above the allowed range.

The director of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (EAEA) urged the media to avoid giving false reports of an alleged radiation leak at the Inshas nuclear facility. The EAEA confirmed that radiation levels at the facility were within the safe range, in line with reports issued by nuclear safety experts.

Earlier this month, the government announced that it would restart the Inshas nuclear reactors on 21 June, the decision contradicting an earlier announcement by the chairman of the ENSA, who had insisted that the reactors would only start operating under the supervision of the Argentinean company that built the facility.

The Inshas nuclear research centre, located 60km east of Cairo, consists of two reactors, and it was initially funded by the former USSR in 1961. The reactors were shut down in 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster.

In the wake of the current controversy, the head of the nuclear reactor department at Inshas, Naguib Ashoob, invited the Egyptian and foreign media to visit the facility last Thursday.

He said the plant had been monitored on 26 May by inspectors from the IAEA, who had not recorded any radiation leakage even using the most sensitive equipment.

However, the official story has been met with criticism from former officials at the EAEA, who have claimed that the "the fact that the reactor was by mere chance not operated the next day saved the area from environmental disaster."

One such official, Samir Mekheimar, the former director of the Inshas research centre who was sacked in January, said that a leak had taken place on 25 May as a result of an operator error and that the EAEA had ordered staff not to publicise it.

He added that the incident was the second leak at Inshas in a year.

ENSA inspector Hani Amer, who visited the site, said that due to valve failure coolant from the primary reactor was not able to flow through the correct channels to the waste tanks.

However, he said no workers had been exposed to radioactivity.

"The radiation level was in the range of 1 microsievert per hour, which is four times the normal background level of 0.25 microsievert per hour," Amer said, referring to the standard international measurement of radiation.

In June 2010, a group of IAEA experts stated that certain measures should be taken at the Inshas reactors should they be reactivated.

They also called for changes to the site design and various technical measures, including the development of a better system to transport critical materials and the establishment of an improved monitoring system to detect leaks.

The report said that a number of facilities at the Inshas site were not functioning correctly, pointing to non-functional warning lights in the control room and the partial deterioration of concrete walls behind which nuclear waste is stored.

The report, prepared by an evaluation team sent by the IAEA to inspect the site in February 2010, said that the reactors could be restarted for training purposes or to manufacture nuclear isotopes for peaceful purposes.

By restarting the Inshas reactors, the Egyptian government expects to raise revenues of LE70 million per month by producing radionuclides used for medical treatments.

Official sources speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly said that Egypt had already signed deals with a number of countries, including South Africa, to provide them with such radionuclides.

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