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Egypt's nuclear programme: Historic dreams and developmental necessity

The Egyptian-Russian nuclear agreement is a way to fulfill Egypt's historic dream of entering the nuclear club. That dream should not be turned into a nightmare amid political bickering

Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar , Thursday 7 Jan 2016
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On 16 September 2006, Al-Ahram published an article I wrote entitled "The Economic and Regional Considerations and the Necessity of Egypt's Entrance into the Nuclear Club." This article preceded the transformation of this issue by the defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) and its chairman into a political propaganda issue that was not accompanied with any practical measures.

Today, after nine years of publishing the article, my standpoint remains as it was. The entrance of any country into the nuclear club means that the scientific elite of this country will be ushered into a new level of scientific and technological development. The effects of this development may spread in different sectors of the economy, provided that flexible mechanisms to transfer scientific achievements to the production field are available.

Moreover, the industries associated with the nuclear programme leads to a general rise in the economy, especially in high-technology sectors such as the software and space industries. Furthermore, knowledge usages in the nuclear field extend to the health sector. Finally, Egypt, as a big and a leading country in its region, has been surrounded with nuclear countries such as the Zionist entity, which uses its nuclear programme entirely in manufacturing weapons because it does not produce any electricity from its reactors, and Iran which points out that its ambitious nuclear programme is devoted to generating electricity although it may have a military side.

Thus, Egypt's entrance into the nuclear club became a top scientific goal in order not to be left behind in comparison with the region's existing powers. Egypt's entrance into the peaceful nuclear club has also become a crucial necessity imposed by regional status considerations and should be done due to the economic benefits of building nuclear reactors on top of which lies generating electricity and developing Egyptian scientific and technological capabilities.

I was indeed appalled by the amount of misgivings voiced concerning the nuclear agreement between Egypt and Russia and the amount of waiting for pitfalls, and how any objective vision is pre-empted with accusations if that vision supports the programme. This is not restricted solely to discussing this issue, and is not confined to its opponents but is a general status on all sides. For if there is a critical or opposing standpoint towards the government or the president you will find the same waiting for a fall and accusations directed to those who have this standpoint despite the fact that the world did not see progress except through criticising what exists for the sake of what's better.

Although this situation would drive anyone to abstain from writing altogether, such abstinence is a luxury that any person who is concerned with this country's future does not have. It is a historic watershed moment, recalling the highest degree of concern for the truth, science and national interest, whether these values lead to supporting formal decisions or criticising them or refusing them altogether.

Before discussing different viewpoints raised concerning the Egyptian-Russian nuclear agreement, we have to point out first the broad outlines of this agreement and the memorandum of understanding that accompanied it. The memorandum of understanding is related to cooperation between the Egyptian and Russian sides regarding the peaceful usage of nuclear energy. This means that the memorandum is a declaration of intent before all the region's countries, the world and international organisations that Egyptian-Russian cooperation is related to peaceful usage and has no objectives linked to manufacturing nuclear weapons.

As for the agreement on the construction of the nuclear station, it was signed by the Egyptian minister of electricity, since reactors are devoted to generating electricity, and the head of the Russian governmental institution Rosatom, which will build the nuclear station comprising four reactors. This institution has agreements for constructing a number of reactors with several countries. The capacity of every reactor of the station is 1,200 Megawatts, while the capacity of the entire station is double the capacity of the hydroelectric station of the High Dam, which provides around 9.3 percent of Egypt's current total electricity needs. Be it known that the hydroelectric station of the High Dam used to provide about 54 percent of Egypt's electricity needs in the 1970s, before the construction of a large number of electric power stations fueled by natural gas or oil.

As for the second agreement, it is an agreement attached to the first and is related to the loan Egypt will receive from the Russian government for funding the construction of the nuclear station in Egypt. The value of the loan was not announced. It will be paid over 35 years on the basis that its payment will be deducted from electricity producing revenues from the nuclear station after its completion, not encumbering Egypt with any burdens. However, not encumbering Egypt with any burdens is an illogical justification for withholding information on the value of the loan. It must be announced, because these are state commitments towards another state. Moreover, international publications will publish Egypt's external debt after adding the loan amount, and thus it will be known to everybody. It is better that the state takes the initiative and announces the loan amount to be used in funding a project Egypt has long dreamt of.

One of the criticisms directed by some towards the agreement was that it was sealed absent transparency concerning the loan. This criticism is a just one, because as I have mentioned there is no harm in stating the loan amount, whatever it is, because it will be paid from the revenues of the project it will be used to construct.

By the way, when Egypt wanted to build the High Dam, it did not find any country to stand by it except the former USSR and Russia in its heart. At this time, Egypt received two loans to fund the High Dam, which was selected as the greatest civil engineering project in the 20th century on the account that it changed the fate of an entire people and transformed them from one hostage to the will of the Nile River, with its destructive floods and droughts, into a people controlling their own fate and the giant river.

The conditions of the two loans were a breakthrough in international economic relations based on collaboration and friendship between peoples. The interest rate was 2.5 percent and the grace period was over the whole time of constructing the High Dam and its hydroelectric station, which extended to 10 years. Payment was made through exporting Egyptian commodities, mainly agricultural goods, to the former USSR.

The huge increase in agricultural produce after building the High Dam ensured provision of the necessary commodities for loan repayment. In those days, many developing and poor countries started to approach the USSR for funding on grand projects in the same way. In an attempt by the West to contain this development, it founded the International Development Association (IDA) under the World Bank for providing soft loans to the poorest countries in order to constrict emergent relations between developing countries and the former USSR.

Some have pointed to fogginess about what was signed — whether it is a memorandum of understanding, agreement or a contract. The truth is that everything was quite clear in this concern, for there is a memorandum of understanding and an agreement concerning the construction of a nuclear station, and an agreement regarding the loan for funding it and its payment conditions. The construction agreement associated with the loan agreement means that a contract is imminent, while the practical steps for its execution will start at the beginning of this year.

As for the strongest reservations, or reasons for refusing the nuclear cooperation agreement, they concern the danger of nuclear energy. Some oppose using it absolutely while some businessmen are concerned about the location of nuclear station, adding that it is better that the North Coast be exploited for tourism only. The truth is that the safety factor in the nuclear station that was agreed upon will be one of the highest globally, because it will be built using state-of-the-art technology in comparison with stations built by using older technologies and that are spread in many world countries.

As for some of the businessmen justifications for refusing to construct that station on the North Coast, fearing its effect on tourism, everyone must come to know the safety criteria and relation between the station and the environment in a scientific and transparent manner. It was better before finally signing the agreement that consultations had been made with political opposition leaders to garner their consent. This would have made the decision of constructing the station a national one, not the president's, or the government's, decision only.

For the reader's information, France received 84.7 million foreign tourists in 2014 while the US received 69.8 million tourists in the same year. Other countries, too, have a number of reactors adjacent to residential or touristic areas. The rub lies in safety standards and measures, and strict adherence to rules.

The World Bank pointed out in its report concerning development indicators in the world (2015) that electricity generated from nuclear energy constitutes 13.4 percent of total electricity production in the world, which amounted to 20,079 billion kilowatt hours in 2012. This means that the generated electricity from nuclear energy was about 2,693 billion kilowatt hours. In order to traditionally generate this amount of electricity we need 5,333 billion barrels of oil. The actual value of this amount of oil is equivalent to more than $240 billion at current low oil prices. It was equivalent to about $560 billion a year and half ago.

The world's nuclear countries generated nearly 2,012 billion kilowatt hours from nuclear energy in 1990. This amount of electricity equalled 3,984 billion barrels of oil, based on the rule that every 505 kilowatt consumes one barrel of oil. According to oil prices in that year, $22.3 from the OPEC Crude Oil Basket, the cost of such oil is around $88.9 billion. As it is evident, the volume of the world's production of nuclear electricity has witnessed a significant increase between the years 1990 and 2012.

The electricity generated from nuclear energy is about 76.2 percent of total electricity production in France, 52.6 percent in Belgium, 23 percent in Germany, about 30.8 percent on average in the Euro currency countries, 19.9 percent in the US, and about 16.5 percent in Russia which is endowed with enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. As for developing countries as a whole, about 4.6 percent of their electricity production comes from nuclear power stations. Egypt has not benefitted from the use of nuclear energy in generating electricity until now.

As for some people's apprehensions concerning the infiltration of terrorists among employees, it is an apprehension that, if we were to submit to it, would prevent us from achieving anything or perform any kind of activity. The solution is to make good the selection of employees and follow strict mechanisms and monitoring inside the nuclear station.

Some raised doubts regarding the commitment of Russia in providing uranium and station supplies. It is difficult to take this matter seriously because Russia has an interest in the continuance of the station's work and the production of electricity in order to pay back the loan given to construct it. Russia has also contractual commitments and a responsibility towards Egypt and the world on the safety and operation of the station.

Some, meanwhile, declared that they prefer investment in solar energy since it is a clean and renewable source of energy and does not imply the risks accompanied with nuclear reactors. Here, it must be asserted that interest in solar energy should be given utmost importance. It is a huge, renewable and unexploited treasure in Egypt through which the country could have been one of the world's biggest electricity producers. However, low oil prices made the cost of electricity production from solar energy much higher in comparison to stations using oil, natural gas or nuclear energy. There is nothing that hinders Egypt from having nuclear stations and solar power stations as well, especially that nuclear stations are not just electricity generating stations, but constitute a world of technological development Egypt should break into.

It is true that Rosatom will build 80 percent of the nuclear station leaving about 20 percent for Egypt to execute. But the training, expertise transfer, administering of the nuclear station and its maintenance will bring about an important development in the technological capabilities of Egypt and its existing elite in this field, formed with the two small reactors Egypt owns and also from the departments of physics, chemistry and nuclear engineering in Egyptian faculties of science and engineering.

The nuclear agreement with Russia is the beginning of fulfilling a historic dream by entering this world of technological development. We should not turn it into a nightmare because of political duels or the state's neglect of political opposition forces in reaching an understanding concerning it. The importance of total transparency regarding the project must be acknowledged, along with the necessity of opening channels of dialogue with all political forces in order to clarify different facets of the project in a humble way, not in scoring points, and to assert the provision of the maximum and latest safety standards and regulations, thus ensuring the nuclear project is a safe embodiment of Egypt's long-awaited technological dream.

The writer is chairman of the board of Al-Ahram Establishment.

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