Egypt goes nuclear
Energy experts breathed a sigh of relief when Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour announced the re-launch of the construction of the first Egyptian nuclear power plant at al-Dabaa, west of Alexandria.
Re-launching a project that has been frozen for several years is wisely considered a first step in fixing Egypt’s flawed power plan. The project includes the construction of eight nuclear reactors each generating an electrical power output ranging between 900 to 1,650 Megawatt (MW). Expert projections of the increase in electrical consumption expect them to reach 60,000 MW by 2020.
According to the Index Mundi report, the nuclear project is a pressing necessity in a country that ranked 28th in the world’s electric consumption for 2013. Conventional energy sources will soon be depleted and Egypt will face a serious energy crisis.
Re-launching the project, however, has its staunch critics, with some energy experts saying that Egypt’s best interests would be served by more investment in renewables and arguing against the construction of a nuclear power plant at a time when the global trend is to shut down existing nuclear plants.
Ali al-Saeedi, former minister of electricity and energy and member of the Supreme Council for Nuclear Energy, says the Dabaa project was put out several times for tender, but progress ground to a halt because of the instability that followed the 2011 Revolution.
Dr Saeedi says, however, that the main impediment to the execution of the nuclear project over the years has been the lack of strategic decisions at the highest level. Anwar al-Sadat who was president from 1970 to 1981 was the only one who took the decision for the project which was to be completed in 2006. After he died, the project was only re-opened for discussion in 2007 and was finally suspended in the wake of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Amidst the severe energy crisis Egypt is suffering, such confusion could cost the State billions.
According to Muhammad Ezzat Abdel-Aziz, former head of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, the delay in the Egyptian nuclear programme has caused Egypt to fall behind in nuclear technology. It is a pity, he says, that Egypt which has several well-established bodies that form a huge scientific platform for nuclear energy is unable to keep up with other countries, such as India. These bodies include the National Centre for Research and Radiation Technology, the National Centre for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Control, the Hot Laboratory and Waste Management Centre and the Nuclear Materials Authority which are active in the discovery and supply of nuclear resources.
Egypt was a pioneer among developing countries when it started its nuclear programme in the 1950s along with India; it was also a founding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Dr Abdel-Aziz says there are 450 nuclear plants in 32 countries.
Compensating the local Bedouin
Dr Saeedi disagrees with voices that criticise the choice of location, and stresses that it was chosen according to extensive studies by IAEA and by independent international experts. The criticism, he says, is not based on scientific or technical grounds.
Questioned about the possible environmental and health hazards of the project, especially when local residents are demanding that it be relocated, Dr Khalil Yasso, CEO of the Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA) said that the greatest proof that such plants were not usually hazardous to the environment was their presence in populated areas all over the world. The technological standards of the Dabaa plant, he said, would match those applied worldwide.
The government cannot comply with local requests to relocate the project simply because it would lead the residents of any new area to also object to the erection of a nuclear plant in their area, causing further delay. As long as nuclear reactor safety factors are applied the project should continue unhindered. The choice of location was based on climatic conditions such as temperature, wind direction and speed, the effect of groundwater on the reactor and the course of the cooling process away from rivers and water sources. Finding another suitable location requires at least three years of studies, and would add huge costs to the State budget.
According to Yasso, steps have been taken to reconcile with the local Bedouin who finally consented to hand the project site over to the State on condition of satisfactory compensation.
Residents had been given compensations amounting to almost EGP11 million back in 1993. Current compensation payments will be granted on a case-by-case basis following thorough studies.
For peaceful purposes
Dr Yasso says the construction of the nuclear plant should take 10 to 15 years, and cost between USD4 and 5 billion. The first stage of its operation, forecast for 2029, is expected to produce an output of 4,000 MW. The financing terms and conditions are currently under study, and it is expected that the contracting countries will be paid with revenue from the plant after it begins operation.
Asked whether it was advisable for Egypt to proceed with nuclear power projects when other countries were closing their nuclear plants, Dr Yasso said that only three countries had taken such a step—Germany, Switzerland and Italy—all of which have a high standard of living and low population growth rate. It is difficult to compare the nature and needs of Egypt with these countries. Egypt is aspiring to achieve 7 per cent economic growth, and accordingly it is in urgent need of three nuclear plants, each producing an annual 1,000 MW. Dr Yasso says it is more fitting to compare our situation with China, which is in the process of building 28 reactors; Russia, which is building 11; or India which is building nine.
Egypt has announced that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, to generate electricity and desalinate sea water. Egypt has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and held agreements with the IAEA to ensure the safety of its nuclear sites and guarantee that they would have no effect on neighbouring countries. The Egyptian nuclear project is being executed in accordance with international safety requirements.
Ibrahim al-Assiri, consultant with the NPPA and former chief inspector of the IAEA, says any delay in resuming the Dabaa nuclear project could cost Egypt losses of USD8 billion yearly, almost equal to the cost of building two nuclear plants.
As to fears with respect to safety, Dr Assiri says the explosion in the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union in 1986 was the worst nuclear disaster in the history of nuclear energy. The type of reactor used at Chernobyl was different from other reactors used around the world and existed only in the former USSR. It was designed to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as to generate electricity.
As for the Fukushima nuclear disaster on 11 March 2011, it was the outcome of an earthquake and tsunami which hit the area, and consequent negative health effects have been almost non-existent, according to the World Health Organisation.
Many lessons were drawn from these nuclear disasters, Dr Assiri says. There have been alterations in the design and operating regulations of future nuclear reactors, and to the technical specifications of the bidding process for the first nuclear plant in Egypt.
Nuclear solution not best
Not everyone is backing the nuclear project. Hisham al-Agamawi, former energy consultant to the Environment Ministry and head of the Egyptian Association for Energy and Environment, disapproves of Egypt’s orientation towards nuclear energy. Dr al-Agamawi sees its production as neither the fastest nor the best solution for Egypt’s energy crisis. According to him, calculations show that the cost of building a nuclear power plant with an output capacity of 1,400 MW, in addition to the cost of buying the fuel necessary for its operation for a period of 15 years, amounts to USD5.75 billion. Yet that is not all, he says. The operational costs include an annual insurance instalment and a cost for cleaning up and dismantling the reactor after its license expires.
Dr Agamawi believes that when a country adopts a programme for energy production, it must take into consideration that it is safe, economical and environmentally friendly. World energy experts agree that nuclear power is far from safe and that it is definitely unfriendly to the environment owing to its hazardous waste and radioactive emissions. So far, he says, the most economic way of dispensing with nuclear waste is deep burial, but even this has proved to be no guarantee against emissions which threaten living things, water resources and soil. In case of Dabaa, no decision has been taken as yet on a burial site for the nuclear waste, Dr Agamawi says.
Dr Agamawi is confident that Egypt can overcome its energy crisis with the new strategy set by the Supreme Council of Energy, which aims to increase the share of the electricity generated by renewable energy sources to 20 per cent of the total electric power used in 2007, and rationalise the consumption of energy by 20 per cent of the total power used in 2007. These two goals are to be reached by 2020 and 2022 respectively.
Unfortunately, the total energy generated by solar cells in Egypt today, according to Dr Agamawi, amounts to a mere 5 MW and is used mainly for lighting, communications, advertising and water pumping. In Germany, a country where the intensity of solar radiation is less than half its counterpart in Egypt, the electric energy produced by solar cells has reached 32,000 MW, equivalent to 120 per cent of the total electrical energy currently produced in Egypt.
Dr Agamawi disagrees with the current government policy of disregarding solar energy in industrial applications. He blames this on the conflicting policies of subsequent energy ministers, the absence of a long-term strategy that encourages the use of solar energy in addition to many institutional and constitutional impediments.
The new electricity law, which is pending approval from Egypt’s next parliament, grants privileges to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.