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Egypt, in cooperation with Russia, is acquiring nuclear energy through its first nuclear plant in the El-Dabaa. This project constitutes a new episode in Cairo’s continuous attempt to maintain some level of favourable relations with Moscow, despite American reservations and Israeli fears. Some domestic criticism regarding the project’s nuclear safety has emerged, unsuccessfully attempting to terminate the ambitious project.
On 10 August 2022, the Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA) issued a statement confirming the International Atomic Energy Agency’s official inclusion of Egypt on the list of countries with reactors under construction.
The Egyptian government cooperated with the Russian company Rosatom to start the construction of the initial nuclear plant units in El-Dabaa, Matrouh Governorate, approximately 300km northwest of Cairo. The NPPA, which owns and operates the project, says that the El-Dabaa plant will have four units, each with a generating capacity of 1,200 megawatts.
Egypt had announced its entry into the nuclear world with this project, which Georgy Borisenko, the Russian ambassador to Cairo, described as “the largest in recent years.” Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, said that Egypt “had joined the nuclear club” with the El-Dabaa plant project, enhancing Egyptian technology, industry and education, and thereby taking them to a new level.
Implementing this project represents the culmination of many years of Egyptian efforts to generate nuclear energy by building four units at a cost of $45.5 billion, $25 billion of which comprised a Russian loan.
The project is essential to the Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030. Operating the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant will significantly benefit Egypt by diversifying energy sources, preserving non-renewable natural resources, absorbing advanced technologies and techniques, and promoting research and development.
The project will boost the quality of work processes and lift the efficiency of local production processes to international standards. It will also provide job opportunities and advance economic development and infrastructure in the Matrouh governorate, especially in the El-Dabaa region.
As part of Egypt’s efforts to confront water scarcity, some researchers hope that the El-Dabaa project will be used to desalinate seawater.
Dream and Obstacles
The Egyptian nuclear dream dates back to late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Moscow cooperated with Cairo to build the first nuclear research and training reactor in Anshas, northeast of Cairo, in 1961. However, this project was halted under President al-Sadat.
Later, in 1983, Egypt intended to construct a nuclear power plant with a capacity of 900 megawatts. However, after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the plan was aborted to ensure the safety of nuclear reactors.
Supporters of late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak claim he should be credited for launching the nuclear energy programme in El-Dabaa, to which he referred in a November 2010 speech before the Egyptian Parliament.
After meeting with members of the Supreme Council for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, Mubarak decided that El-Dabaa would be the site of Egypt‘s first nuclear power plant. At the time, it was described as “a qualitative step in implementing the strategic programme to secure energy supplies and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
Since Mubarak’s announcement, several countries, including France, the United States and Russia, have competed to help Egypt implement its nuclear programme.
As soon as he came to power in 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi renewed the dream. Six companies from China, France, Japan, the US, South Korea and Russia contended for the El-Dabaa nuclear plant tender, which the Russian company eventually won.
On 24 August 2015, some Egyptian newspapers headlined with titles such as “The Russians tear the El-Dabaa nuclear plant away from America and China.” Egypt chose Russian Rosatom to take on the construction of two nuclear plants in El-Dabaa, after excluding American, Korean and Chinese bids that did not meet requirements or lacked information.
Reports by various Egyptian news outlets at the end of 2015 stated that the official Egyptian Middle East News Agency had decided to ban publications on the El-Dabaa nuclear plant project, except those that had referred to the relevant security authorities and the Ministry of Electricity. CNN attributed the decision to the increasing warnings of potential risks of the Egyptian-Russian joint venture.
However, Yahya Qalash, former head of the Press Syndicate, argued that the decision affected the freedom of information and considered that Egyptians should not obtain information about an Egyptian project from international agencies or foreign media.
In a joint statement, seven Egyptian human rights organisations expressed their profound dismay over the publication ban, calling on the responsible authorities for its retraction. In their statement, they called for “respecting principles of transparency and community participation regarding the nuclear plant‘s issue, which has been surrounded by much obfuscation from the beginning.”
The American Position
Some analysts believe that “the Americans and corruption are behind the failure of the Egyptian nuclear programme.” Other analysts also stated that America and Israel “are not satisfied,” indicating that they did not welcome the project in the first place.
Mohamed Mounir Megahed, the former director of the El-Dabaa site, said that the US made unreasonable demands when Sadat sought to establish a nuclear power plant. The demands included the US’ right to inspect all Egyptian nuclear facilities, which Sadat rejected.
In a televised interview, Dr Emad Gad, a former member of Parliament, revealed why Egypt did not choose the American offer. According to Gad, this was simply because the nuclear reactors’ secrets would reach Israel the following day. Gad pointed out that, concerning El-Dabaa, American anger towards Egypt will escalate because Russia, instead of the US, will be the implementing partner, explaining that Russia will transfer its expertise to the Egyptians, unlike the US.
However, according to writer Abdel-Qader Shehayeb, Egypt rejected American wishes concerning its relationship with Russia. While Egypt responded to the Americans’ desire to normalise relations between the two sides and nurture them to the level of strategic relations, this didn’t prevent Cairo from seeking to strengthen ties with Russia, China and several important European countries.
Some reports published in Israel indicated that the El-Dabaa nuclear reactor constituted a crisis for Tel Aviv, primarily since the reactor’s construction would enable Cairo to develop a nuclear bomb. Haaretz did not hesitate to describe the project as “dangerous.” On the other hand, other reports believe that the risk of Egypt using the reactor for military purposes remains limited, since it has no plutonium reprocessing plant, nor does it have complete control over the reactor’s energy cycle.
After announcing the El-Dabaa project, much criticism has been directed at the Egyptian regime for humanitarian, economic, health and environmental reasons.
In 2021, the Egyptian government denied rumours claiming that the El-Dabaa nuclear plant lacked safety standards and caused environmental harm. According to the government, it will be one of the most critical projects aimed at generating electricity from nuclear energy, combining the latest international technologies and the highest levels of safety. Additionally, the government stressed that the plant would play a role in reducing environmental pollution rates by preventing the emission of carbon dioxide.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights called on the Egyptian government to disclose the details of the plant’s agreements. It also demanded that it abide by the constitution and submit the plant’s construction and loan agreements to Parliament for approval before starting implementation.
The Initiative warned that the loan would significantly increase Egypt’s external debt, pointing to crucial questions about the profitability of this enormous expenditure to generate electricity equivalent to only 7 per cent of Egypt’s energy needs once it starts operating around 2029.
On the other hand, Dr Ali Abdel Nabi, a former official of the NPPA, defends the project. Abdel Nabi believes the project is “the most important in modern Egyptian history, especially as it will provide the country with the energy required for decades.”
Abdel Nabi draws attention to the fact that the plant’s current location is the most optimal among the 23 available locations on the Mediterranean and Red sea. While some have pointed out the possibility of the state raking in 50 billion Egyptian pounds if it were to sell the site’s land to investors, Abdel Nabi emphasises the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant project’s investment nature.
According to Abdel Nabi, it is a “first-class investment project,” in addition to a “tourism project, a national energy security project and a technological national security project to develop Egyptian industries.” Moreover, he states that “one nuclear unit will save $340 million annually, which means that the four units will save $1360 million annually.”
The expected operational lifespan of the nuclear power plant is approximately 60 years, thus constituting the ideal alternative to Egypt’s dependence on gas for power generation. In this context, the plant can operate 92 per cent of the year. In comparison, a natural gas power plant’s lifespan does not exceed 25 years and operates 60 per cent of the year.
After successfully dealing with American and Israeli fears, Egypt is stepping towards its nuclear dream for peaceful use, relying on Russian support.
With the new balance that Sisi has tried to create in Egypt’s foreign affairs, Cairo is on its way to securing nuclear power for peaceful purposes; an achievement that the stance of previous Egyptian leaders did not facilitate.