Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

From Russia with nuclear energy

Egypt is negotiating the purchase of Russian nuclear reactors for its civil nuclear power programme, but this does not mean it is following Russian policies, writes Hany Ghoraba

Russian ambitions for a global role did not cease after the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the former Soviet Union. As the successor state of the Soviet Union, Russia has attempted to regain its former glory and global hegemony by using different methods, one of them being the arms trade and weapons industry. However, while Russian arms may find fierce competition from those of the United States, France, Great Britain and China, also major world players, the Russians have developed one technology in which they represent the dominant force, thus rendering their influence more effective and perhaps more permanent.

That technology is the construction of nuclear reactors. The notorious reputation that the Russian nuclear industry had after the nuclear meltdown that took place in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 and its enormous aftermath did not deter the Russians from redeveloping their nuclear industry to meet modern safety standards. They managed to revive their industry and introduce new-generation nuclear reactors that are capable of withstanding even the most rigorous safety tests.

However, safety measures are not what the Russians are offering their long list of global customers, who instead want know-how, maintenance and most importantly political support. The United States, France and other European countries have a long list of rigorous prerequisites for any country that seeks their nuclear technology. In addition to the steep prices charged by American, French and South Korean nuclear companies, any decision to build such reactors in other countries is preceded by a lot of political pressure that may be exerted on potential clients.

This is exactly what the Russians do not do, as they offer their nuclear technology without such burdens on the client. They have a “no-questions asked” policy as long as the client is not a hostile country and has the necessary financial capability to undertake such projects. As a result, clients are lining up for Russian nuclear technology which now has over 60 per cent of global market share.

Egypt and Russia have been in negotiations for years over the possibility of building four nuclear reactors in Egypt that will cost a staggering $30 to $45 billion in total. The two countries have finally reached an agreement, with the Russian ROSATOM Company handling the nuclear deal and providing a long-term low-interest loan of $25 billion to pay for it. This represents 85 per cent of the total project cost and is payable after 2029.

The Egyptian government has found these terms favourable, and the new reactors will help in the long-term development plans set out by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, especially in the field of energy generation and water desalination projects. The Russians managed to outbid most of their competitors and also provide payment facilities that Egypt found attractive enough to approve despite the staggering long-term costs. A significant sector of the Egyptian population is in favour of moving forward with the project, as they believe that Egypt should have its own peaceful nuclear technology.

However, there have been concerns regarding the safety of the project, along with its cost, particularly as Egypt has already secured the majority of its energy needs for the near future through plans signed by the Ministry of Electricity with giants such as Siemens. Moreover, there are political concerns about tying Egypt’s energy development with Russian partners who despite being cordial and helpful at times have also seemed unpredictable.

Examples of such unpredictably have included the unexplained Russian delay in resuming tourist flights to Sharm El-Sheikh nearly two years after the terrorist attack on a Russian aircraft over Sinai. The Russians, acting on a tip from British intelligence, ceased all tourist flights to Egypt in November 2015. Despite the Egyptian authorities meeting the demands of their Russian counterparts in regard to heightened security measures in order that the flights could be resumed, the Russians have been stalling on resuming the flights.

Accordingly, while it is important to maintain strong economic and military ties with Russia, Egypt cannot neglect the unpredictability that has characterised the Russian stance towards it. Signing the nuclear reactor deal with Russia is a long-term commitment for at least the next 60 years, and the Egyptian authorities should receive assurances from their Russian counterparts that this long term will not be marred by politics now or in the foreseeable future. These assurances should mean that the nuclear reactors to be built in the Al-Dabaa region of Egypt should be considered to be a development project and not a commitment to follow Russian policies for the next half century, especially in the post-Putin era.

The Russian terms on nuclear power development projects are the most lenient of any country worldwide. This is the main reason that the Russians are gaining a foothold in the Middle East, and it explains why they have other clients that could include Jordan, Turkey, Hungary and India who could follow suit in benefiting from Russian technology that is usually backed by both political support and no interference in internal political affairs, unlike technology deals signed with the West.

Russia is expected to dominate the nuclear energy market for decades to come as a result, thanks to its flexible policies that seem to meet the demands of many developing countries that now seek to adopt such technology.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

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