In a speech marking the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war on 6 October, Interim President Adly Mansour announced that Egypt was re-launching its nuclear power programme.
The interim president said that Egypt was taking steps to construct to its first power-generating nuclear plant in Dabaa, in the Mediterranean governorate of Marsa Matrouh.
The Dabaa site had been returned to state ownership the week before the speech, after having been occupied by angry locals since January.
"We sent a message to Mohamed Morsi in February telling him that we were ready to hand over the site on two conditions. The first condition was to repeat the studies again in order to see if the site at Dabaa was suitable for a nuclear plant or not. The second condition was that, if he wanted the land immediately, we would leave it without any compensation, on the condition that the project starts immediately," Sheikh Mastour Bu Shukara, the coordinator of the Dabaa locals, told Ahram Online.
"For 30 years nobody spoke with us from the government to find out what we wanted," he said, but then in September a delegation from the military intelligence approached the locals and negotiations started.
"The military intelligence came to us and we told them that we delegated the army to negotiate on our behalf with our conditions, which are simply to do new studies to prove that Dabaa is the perfect place for the nuclear plant, and if it turns to be so then to lower the land space allocated to the project and to compensate us fairly," said Bu Shukara.
The successful negotiations with military intelligence and the armed forces paid off. Military chief General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced in a meeting with the tribes of Matrouh that a new residential and touristic city will be constructed as part of the Dabaa nuclear project site.
According to the general's plan, the northern part of the city will be for tourism development and will feature hotels and chalets, while the southern part will be a residential city for the locals.
"It is a gift to the people of Dabaa from the armed forces for their initiative to return the land and to reject violence," the general said.
In recent weeks the government has been holding meetings with the ministers of electricity and finance on the issue, and it seems that the Egyptian nuclear project is kicking off in earnest.
A difficult history
Almost all the presidents preceding Mansour since Nasser in 1963 have announced plans for a nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast.
In 1963, the Egyptian government started planning a plant at Sidi Kirr, but the war against Israel broke out in 1967 and the project was halted.
After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, reports showed that oil reserves would not be enough and Egypt had to search for alternative energy sources. In 1974, Egypt received an offer from the United States to provide it with two nuclear plants as well a supply of nuclear fuel.
Dabaa, a small coastal city in Marsa Matrouh, was mentioned for the first time as a possible location for the plant in the mid-1970s.
In 1981, presidential decree no.309 of that year was issued to relocate some locals in Dabaa to a new spot, in return for compensation.
“Dabaa was chosen from 12 sites in Egypt as the perfect place for the project,” said Dr Mounir Maghed, the former vice president of the Egyptian nuclear plant authority and one of the biggest advocates of nuclear energy in Egypt.
“The location was chosen based on years of studies to make sure it was the right place,” he told Ahram Online.
“In 1984 we began to hear talks about the bids for constructing the plant but then came the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. I believe the regime then found an opportunity to halt the programme in a way that saved face, giving in to some foreign pressures that did not want Egypt to advance in its nuclear programme. At the same time, we began to find big reserves of natural gas [in Egypt],” Maghed said.
For nearly 20 years the project was forgotten, but in 2006 during the fourth annual National Democratic Party conference, Gamal Mubarak, the son of ruling president Hosni Mubarak, declared that the plant would be built in Dabaa.
The opposition media accused Gamal Mubarak of using the nuclear project for his own political agenda at the expense of the environment and disregarding the possible risk. At the same time, Gamal and the government were met with opposition from their own allies within the NDP when a group of business tycoons who had invested in tourism on the Mediterranean coast were not keen on the power station’s planned location.
Businessman and ex-NDP policies committee member Ibrahim Kamel claimed that Dabaa was not suitable for a nuclear plant, expressing his fear of a possible meltdown and giving the example of the Chernobyl disaster in several television and newspapers interviews.
“Did those businessmen ignore the fact that Dabaa had been chosen as a nuclear plant site since the 1970s? May I ask why they chose the location of their projects to be beside Dabaa?” asks Maghed, who argues that the influential businessmen were responsible for sabotaging the project during the Mubarak years.
The business lobby seemed to be losing in June 2009 when the Egyptian nuclear plant authority signed a $160 million contract over eight years with the Australian Worley Parsons corporation. According to the contract, the Australian company would present the consultation and aid Egypt in building its first nuclear energy plant.
However, in 2011 revolution broke out and Mubarak was quickly forced to step down.
For months the nuclear plant project seemed to be forgotten, but later in 2011 the ruling military council issued a formal decision to halt the nuclear project until Egypt had had parliamentary and presidential elections.
“The contract with Worley Parsons has been frozen since then,” Dr. Aktham Abu Ela, an official spokesman for the Ministry of Electricity, told Ahram Online, adding that after the return of the Dabaa site to the state, the ministry was working to reactivate the contract.
After the 2011 uprising, the locals of Dabaa found the opportunity to express their opinions about the project.
“We are 14 tribes living there. We do not want to stand against the country’s project but for 30 years nothing happened and no one from the government tried to hear what we wanted. We were not compensated fairly, and the plant was not built in all that time,” Sheikh Mastour Bu Shukara told Ahram Online.
“For the first 20 years the tribes had the freedom to use the land for herding and agriculture, as well as the sea for fishing, but over the past ten years, things changed. They said they would build the plant and the only thing they built was a wall. They also treated us badly,” Bu Shukara said.
Over the thirty years of planning, a few buildings had been constructed at the 50km space allocated to the project, including a weather centre, a seisomlogical centre, and various administrative buildings. When the locals stormed the site armed with firearms in January 2013, most of the buildings were destroyed except for an electricity station and a water desalination plant.
“The presidential decree of 1981 is not the Holy Quran. It can be changed now and this is what we told the military intelligence delegation,” Bu Shukara said.
Environmental and economic concerns
According to the electricity ministry's official statistics, Egypt's daily capacity for generating electricity currently stands at around 25,000 megawatts. At peak, this capacity reaches 27,000 megawatts, and with daily consumption at 29,000 megawatts there can be up to a 2000 megawatt deficit. With that, a 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant could be very helpful in solving in Egypt's energy crisis.
“There is no doubt that there is huge energy crisis in Egypt; nobody denies it. But instead of thinking about sustainable solutions from renewable sources like solar energy, the Egyptian government thinks about using coal and nuclear energy” said Ahmed El-Daroby, the Greenpeace representative in Egypt.
“There are other alternatives much safer and cheaper than the nuclear energy, most of all solar energy. That could provide already more job opportunities and investment opportunities for Egypt than nuclear energy” El-Daroby told Ahram Online.
“There are huge risks associated with the nuclear energy and safety…we have two experiences -- Chernobyl in the 1980s and Fukushima two years ago in Japan -- not to mention we will be leaving a huge burden on the future generation in the form of nuclear waste,” said the activist.
Maghed disagrees with the argument that nuclear power is high risk.
“What happened to Chernobyl and Fukushima did not stop other countries from building nuclear plants and reactors. Other countries in the region have already begun to use nuclear plants to generate energy, like the UAE,” he argued.
Plant construction will take years
Despite the announcement by President Mansour that Egypt will restart its nuclear programme this year, it will be years before the construction of the nuclear plant can start in earnest.
“We can start constructing the nuclear plant by 2016 at the earliest,” Dr. Aktham Abu Ela told Ahram Online.
“We still have a lot to do. The project needs infrastructure from residences for the construction workers to roads to water stations to electricity stations. It is only the start.”
Abu Ela said that the Ministry of Electricity has created a plan with the armed forces to re-plan the city of Dabaa in order to modernise and develop the site.
“We will reactivate the contract with Worley Parsons and then we will wait for parliamentary approval for the project and the bids for constructing the site. Then we will study the offers to choose the best one, and still there will be more studies concerning the safety measures of the plant that need to be approved by the nuclear plant authority,” said Abu Ela.
Asked if Egypt has plans to build any other nuclear power plants, the ministry spokesman said that the priority is the Dabaa site.
“We want to finish constructing this plant first, before we think about other locations and other plants in Egypt,” he said.