Egypt’s nuclear debate

In light of the environmental and human tragedy unraveling in Japan, countries equipped with nuclear power are trembling. The idea of nuclear energy, traditionally presented as emission-free and environmentally-friendly overall, has become discredited. Nuclear engineers, such as Jacques Noos from France, admit that their work is in jeopardy. “All [our] convictions as nuclear engineers have been shaken,” said Noos during an interview to the European Energy Review.

The accident in Fukushima has impacted Egypt’s nuclear program — Egypt recently suspended its program for an indefinite period of time. Egypt decided in 2007 to re-launch its nuclear program after having frozen it for two decades, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) backed the decision in 2010. Although construction had yet to begin at Egypt’s nuclear plant, which was slated to be located in the town of al-Dabaa on the North Coast, the process of becoming nuclear had accelerated significantly over the past three years.

Currently the program is stalled, but behind closed doors a fierce debate is underway to determine whether the program should be cancelled entirely or revived at some point later on. While the Egyptian Nuclear Power Plants Authority denies the possibility cancelling the nuclear program in its entirety, a lobby of young environmentalists is determined to expose the dangers and unimportance of nuclear power for a country like Egypt.

Ibrahim Aly al-Osery, a consultant in nuclear affairs and energy with the Nuclear Power Plants Authority, explains his frustration over this stalled program. “We should not wait before reviving our nuclear program, because it is the only way for Egypt to be energy independent,” he says. “We have already waited so long!” he laments, recalling the history of Egypt’s nuclear program, itself a history of postponements.

The program began in the 1960’s in collaboration with the USSR, and was frozen in 1986 by former President Hosni Mubarak in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Pressure to cancel the program also emanated from prominent businessmen who sought to develop the coastal region for tourism. The choice of al-Dabaa (120 km West of Alexandria) for locating the plant represented a clear impediment to their plans. Until 2007, the nuclear program continued to lay dormant.

“Egypt has limited resources in oil and natural gas, and in 20 to 30 years it will run out and we will be obliged to import our electricity if we don’t start producing our own energy through nuclear plants,” al-Osery explains. “The demand for electricity in Egypt increases by 10 percent annually due to our rapidly-growing population, and renewable energies like solar, wind, hydro and biomass cannot possibly cover this demand,” he says.

In 2010, Egypt produced 25,000 Mega Watts (MW) of electricity, 500 MW of which was produced using renewable energy. “By 2027, Egypt will need a capacity of 50,000 MW to function properly, and only nuclear plants can deliver such an amount of electricity,” he adds.

According to al-Osery, the nuclear power stations Egypt planned to build would be extremely safe because al-Dabaa would receive the latest and most modern nuclear reactors. “First, our station would use pressurized light-water reactors that are much safer than the boiling water reactor of Fukushima, and second, the North coast area is not subject to risk of earthquakes or tsunamis as seen in Japan,” he says, adding that the nuclear power plant is designed to withstand a nine meter high wave as an extra precaution.

Lama al-Hatow is a young environmental engineer and a member of a recently founded environmentalist lobby group, disagrees with al-Osery.

“Many people think that if we want to move away from fossil fuels, there is no option other than nuclear. This is absolutely untrue,” she says, adding that “several studies undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) have shown that a combination of solar and wind could power the country and meet future energy needs.”

Al-Hatow witnessed the nuclear disaster in Japan first hand, and she spent a couple of days in and out of nuclear fallout shelters before she was evacuated from Tokyo to Osaka where she took a flight back to Cairo. “I am extremely worried about the Egyptian nuclear program, because when you realize that Japan — one of the most modern countries in the world — has been unable to contain this nuclear disaster within the perimeter of Fukushima, what could Egypt do?”

According to al-Hatow, even if the Egypt’s nuclear plant never experienced an environmental disaster, properly maintaining the facility would be a source of worry in itself. “The kind of maintenance needed to operate such a facility is enormous, and judging from the maintenance of our train system and our waste-water treatment facilities, I’m not too confident about our ability to supervise the maintenance of such an enormous and dangerous facility,” she argues.

Her experience in Japan made her realize how important it is to speak out against nuclear energy, and that is what she intends to do with the help of other young environmentalists within the lobby group. “Through this lobby group, that we want to turn into a political party, we want to impact and influence policy makers on environmental challenges,” she says, adding that the group is composed of 50 to 60 young environmentalists with various specialties. “Our goal is not to win seats in the parliament; what we aim at is putting the environment on the agendas of possible candidates for the next elections,” she stresses.

Ensuring that Egypt’s nuclear program remains inoperative is the lobby group’s first priority, and they are currently brainstorming on how to launch a campaign against the program’s revival. “We have to work a lot harder to try and convince people that the nuclear option is not a proper energy supplier for Egypt. We have not decided if we are going to launch a mass media campaign, a Facebook group, distribute flyers or protest in Tahrir… we will see,” she concluded.

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