What are the Secrets and Complexities of the Mysterious Egyptian Nuclear Program?
By Hisam al Khawli
Translation by Maya Hardimon
July 1, 2017
For reasons that have not yet been announced, in 2015 Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi agreed to a Russian offer without offers from any other countries. He signed a preliminary contract for a joint agreement that includes the construction of a 3rd generation nuclear power plant that would include four 1,200 MWe reactors for a total of 4,800 MWe.
The proposed plant will include eight stations to be completed in eight stages. Russia will supply approximately 80% of materials for the plant compared to Egypt’s 20%; Egypt will pay for the full value of the plant after its completion and the beginning of its operation. Egypt and Russia agreed to begin operating the first unit in 2022 and the rest consecutively until 2026. The plant will operate in the Dabaa region of Egypt’s Matrouh Governorate.
The matter was ignored for a little while. Then, in the past few days, many Egyptian newspapers reported el-Sisi’s “surprise” call to sign preliminary contracts to launch the program on June 30. This came after the announcement that all equipment necessary for the project is reaching completion.
The signing ceremony was attended by Sergey Kiriyenko, the Director General of the Russian company, and Mohamed Shaker, the Egyptian Minister of Electricity, and several officials from the Egyptian Nuclear Energy Authority. The only thing left was el-Sisi’s decision to start the establishment of the station, as he is the official entrusted with the decision to implement the Egyptian nuclear program. Meanwhile, Russian ambassador to Egypt, Sergei Kirpichenko, confirmed that 99% of the contracts needed to start the program have been agreed upon.
The Egyptian Ministry of Electricity said that “the four contracts for the nuclear plant have been legally finalized” and that “the contracts are ready to sign with the Russian company responsible for establishing the first phase of the Egyptian nuclear program. The program came into force this year after the Egyptian Nuclear and Radiological Authority, the sole authority to verify the safety of nuclear installations and issue certificates of validity, announced its approval of Dabaa for the nuclear plant site, as it did not meet criteria for rejection.
History of Egypt’s Nuclear Program
The idea began in 1957 with the first thought of establishing a specialized authority for atomic energy and the quest to build the first nuclear reactor for research. The ETRR-1 reactor was built in 1961, which can be considered the true beginning of a nuclear presence in Egypt.
Later, in the mid-1960s, Egyptian thinking focused on performing preliminary studies on the project, which led to the establishment of Egypt’s Atomic Energy Authority, as well as preparing specifications for the nuclear plant. This allowed for using the station to generate 150 thousand kilowatts of electricity and to produce 20 thousand cubic meters per day of desalinated sea water in the area of Sidi Kerir on Egypt’s northwest coast. Then, the project was put up for international bidding, and in 1966 the United States wanted to supervise and implement the project, but Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and Egypt’s subsequent defeat led to the project’s suspension.
In 1973, after the October War and the ensuing peace agreement, thought turned back to the project’s implementation, though with some hesitation. Then came the decision to designate a “peaceful nuclear power station” in 1981. Egypt signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and thought of taking more steps toward the project until the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, the largest nuclear disaster in the world. At this point, thinking about the project stopped completely because of its potential danger.
In 2007, the Egyptian government announced the activation of the Egyptian nuclear program once again. At this time, views were set on the Dabaa region on the northwest coast of the Mediterranean. This decision led to the forced displacement of the people of Dabaa, in a scene not much different from the relocation of the Nubian people from their land to build the Aswan Dam. However, the nuclear project was not completed during this period.
After the Egyptian revolution of 2011, residents of Dabaa re-took control of their land by force in the midst of security chaos in the country. This situation remained the same through the end of 2012, even after the arrival of now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The project file was then re-opened until the middle of 2013 when clashes occurred between the police and the residents in an attempt to remove them from the land.
In September 2013, the Egyptian national press reported several meetings involving leaders of the Dabaa tribes and leaders from the Ministry of the Interior under the supervision of Brigadier General Alaa Abu Zeid, the then director of the Military Intelligence Office in Matrouh who later became the Governor of Matrouh. They agreed that Dabaa’s inhabitants would evacuate the area with a pledge that security would not follow them. They also agreed upon the re-opening of the Dabaa police station and renovating it “at the expense of the people” and creating a new city as a “gift” to residents.
That same year, the first high school for nuclear technology was established in the Dabaa area of the Matrouh Governorate, offering a five year course. According to the Governor of Matrouh, 40% of the establishment work has been completed, and it will be opened in September 2017.
The Enigma of “Mastour Abu Shakara” and the State
Several years ago, the Egyptian newspaper “Al Masry Al Youm” (“Egypt Today”) reported that Dabaa residents blockaded the city council building to express their opposition to a lawsuit filed by the Authority of Nuclear Power Plants against the residents; the lawsuit described the residents as terrorists.
The lawsuit targeted two citizens, Mastour Abu Shakara and his brother Juma Abu Shakara on charges of inciting the tearing down of the reactor wall and attacking the project’s buildings inside the wall.
In a press statement, Mastour Abu Shakara said “the city of Dabaa suffers from severe neglect and deprivation, including a drinking water crisis and crises of jobs and ownership stemming from the disregard of governorate officials and the silence of members of the People’s Assembly.” He added, “until the Authority of Nuclear Power Plants drops their lawsuit against the people of Dabaa and decide to return their lands and homes to them, which they were robbed of for 30 years, the residents have decided to escalate and exercise their right to nullify this false lawsuit. They also decided to give the youth of Dabaa 18 apartments within the fence of the project’s administrative buildings, which serve as lodging for Authority employees. This would solve the problems of water and jobs.”
After reconciliation meetings, Mastour Abu Shakara was appointed chairman of the Coordination Committee for the Damaged People of Dabaa. Abu Shakara said that 1,500 families were negatively affected by the Dabaa project, with an average of seven individuals per household. That is, according to Aby Shakara, a total of 10,000 people have been affected by the project.
However, according to Abu Shakara, the victims received promises of compensation, including being put up in the new residential city of Dabaa, which was set up at a cost of 2 billion Egyptian pounds (approximately 113 million USD). He said “we are confident that the political leadership is fully aware of our concerns and working to address them. We affirm that we have placed our trust in them, and we have handed over the land to a noble and trustworthy institution. This refers not only on the Dabaa project, but also to the capabilities, wealth, and borders of Egypt. We welcome all efforts that will improve our nation’s progress. What is important to us is essentially the interest of society, and we will continue to work on this through constructive cooperation.
In June 2016, the first phase of the new residential city of Dabaa, which el-Sisi had announced to the affected people of Dabaa, was declared under the supervision of the Armed Forces Engineering Corps.
This first stage of the residential city was built to the west of the nuclear plant on an area of 2470 acres. It includes 1,500 homes, 1,000 of which are built in the Bedouin style, as well as outdoor areas and small houses for project staff. The total cost was one billion Egyptian pounds (around 56 million USD), though the project had not been finished at the time of this writing.
On the other hand, most of the affected are still waiting on the armed force’s promises to provide jobs for their children and to provide development projects to eliminate unemployment in the region. They also complain about the government’s demands that each person pay more than 250,000 Egyptian pounds for housing previously announced as a “gift” in return for the residents leaving the area due to “changing circumstances.” This is the opposite of what Mastour Abu Shakara announced in the newspaper!
Other Problems with the Project
The reactor needs “nuclear fuel,” which is replenished annually; only a few countries in the world have a “full nuclear cycle,” so the fuel will cost Egypt a lot if it cannot be provided under the agreement which has not been announced yet. This prompted many specialists to wonder, does the agreement allow fuel from outside Russia or not? Then, do Egyptian electricity networks need to develop nuclear reactors? There are no answers to any technical questions about the project; no such information has been made available by the Egyptian authorities.
For his part, the Deputy Minister of Electricity said in a press statement that “energy production from nuclear projects is one of the cheapest economic projects after 98% of energy sources have been exploited in Egypt,” claiming that “there is no risk from the disposal of nuclear waste or the introduction of nuclear fuel.”
Meanwhile, el-Sisi said that “the signing of this agreement in the midst of current world events is a message of hope, work, and peace for Egypt and the world.” He added that the nuclear program is peaceful and that the plant’s cost will be covered for 35 years and from its own revenue so as not to burden future generations with debt.
On the other hand, some experts oppose this state promotion, as the state’s reasons are not applicable to Egypt for several reasons, the most important of which is the lack of state ownership of raw materials or even potential financial material for the project, which will expose Egypt to the potential accumulation of debt for future generations.
Another important point is that a similar project in Turkey, run by the same Russian company, is operating at a cost of less than $5 billion. In comparison, the Egyptian project costs $29 billion, of which Egypt is paying $4 billion and Russia $25 billion in what is now the largest debt in Egypt’s history.
On the other hand, the State Council’s Legislative Department, led by Chancellor Ahmed Abu al-Azam, has finished reviewing a bill establishing an executive body to manage the establishment of nuclear power plants. Al-Azam said that “the state’s urgent need led to the creation of a new body to oversee the contract for the nuclear plant’s construction until the project is delivered to the Authority of Nuclear Power Plants, which is the owner and operator of this plant.
The bill, which includes 18 articles, guarantees that this is a “public economic body,” which gives it the benefits of such bodies such as flexibility in the speed of issuing necessary decisions, “taking into account what funds the state can provide to carry out its functions and the possibility of its benefiting from the establishment of other nuclear plants in Egypt or abroad in the future. These bodies can also issue internal regulations without restrictive government laws, have an independent budget, and not transfer budget surpluses from year to year,” according to al-Azam.
The bill also stipulates that “imported tools and equipment are exempt from customs and other taxes and fees, and that this council will be formed by the Egyptian President based on the offer of the Prime Minister and the nomination of the Minister of Electricity.
However, specialists reject this bill because it all falls under the power of the President and it increases the ambiguity of the project through not declaring a specified budget for the project’s framework.
Overall, although the option of using nuclear energy is called the “option of total empowerment,” it can increase the political and economic power of the state, as nuclear energy accounts for about 14% of the world’s energy industry. The Egyptian government says that the project will lead to “Egypt’s joining the list of energy exporting countries” and that it may provide thousands of jobs for young people. However, the project still faces many obstacles that must be overcome in addition to the ambiguity and lack of sufficient information about the program, which has led many to question its seriousness and utility.