Is Egypt ready for nuclear technology?
Nuclear power deal with Russia marks a huge leap in bilateral relations
The deal between Russia and Egypt over the construction of a nuclear power plant in the city of Dabaa is a huge leap in bilateral relations, especially when considering recent tensions after the Russian plane crash over the Sinai Peninsula. Yet one question keeps being posed: Does Egypt have what it takes to construct a nuclear facility?
Political science Professor Hazem Hosni considers the deal impulsive because it does not take into account several future complications. “The president said that Egypt will use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and this sounds good, but the world doesn’t go by words,” Hosni wrote. “Iran has for years been insisting on the same thing and no one listened.”
He added: “Egypt is strategically more important, which means it is going to be subjected to thorough inspections. The outcome of such inspections is often dictated by political agendas. How would Egypt deal with reports about its nuclear program that do not come in its best interest?” For Hosni, the deal is an attempt by Egypt to contain the crisis that resulted from the plane crash over the Sinai, which led to questioning of airport and aviation security in the country.
Journalist Essam al-Obeidi traced what he termed “groundless” apprehensions about the construction of a nuclear facility to the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. He “was a subordinate of the United States, which naturally wanted Egypt to remain underdeveloped so it wouldn’t have a will of its own,” Obeidi said. “The Chernobyl disaster was used at the time to scare Egyptians of anything nuclear, and it worked.”
He says it is impossible by international standards to establish a nuclear facility without ensuring that all security precautions are taken. “Accidents like the leakage of radioactive substance can happen, but if you compare their frequency and victims to plane crashes for example, you would find that the latter is much more hazardous. However, people never stopped using airplanes.”
While considering the project a positive step toward finding alternative energy sources, energy expert Ramadan Abul Ela objected to exaggerating the role nuclear power is expected to play in Egypt. “Almost all industrial countries do not depend on nuclear power as a main source of energy owing to the risks it might involve. What happened in Japan proves this.”
Abul Ela says restrictions imposed on countries planning to construct nuclear facilities could be an obstacle. “However, the fact that Russia is fully supporting Egypt’s nuclear program will definitely make it harder for the international community to put unnecessary pressure on Egypt.”
Energy specialist Akram Ismail says Russia’s involvement will make it unlikely that the project would be stopped, like others in Egypt were. “Russia is obviously determined to seize this opportunity of dominating the nascent nuclear market in the Middle East and Africa, especially in light of current conflicts in the region,” said Ismail. “This means that for the first time, Egypt’s nuclear program might materialize.”
Hani al-Nokrashi, energy expert and member of the president’s Consultative Scientific Council, says in light of terrorist attacks to which Egypt and the region are subjected, constructing a nuclear facility is not wise: “A solar energy facility would be much safer.”
He added: “A nuclear program does not only involve securing the facility, but also managing the nuclear waste that contaminates the soil and subterranean water. Any negligence is extremely dangerous and the process itself is extremely expensive.”
Geology Professor Khaled Ouda has reservations on the choice of location. “The northern coastal line from Borg al-Arab in the east to Ras al-Hekma in the west, including Dabaa, is made up of detrital limestone, which means fragile, soluble rocks that contain a lot of cracks. The lower layers of those rocks contain pockets of mud, gypsum and rock salt, which increases the possibility of the disintegration of these rocks.”
Ouda said the presence of subterranean water in this area increases the risk. “Because the base is weak, it is not possible to build a nuclear facility or even any large buildings in this area.”
Ambassador and international law expert Ibrahim Youssry is concerned about the absence of sufficient information on the deal. “In the midst of the political and economic turmoil Egypt is currently undergoing, it is important to know the reasons for striking this deal now,” he said, adding that there were growing apprehensions about the project being “a show like previous ones,” without specifying.
Journalist Mohamed Abdel Aziz referred to the New Suez Canal and the New Capital. “The New Suez Canal did not really have an impact on the Egyptian economy as was claimed, and the construction of the New Capital was postponed indefinitely,” he wrote. “Will the nuclear facility share their fate?”