Moving past obstacles and confusion towards nuclear power

Ahmed Eleiba , Monday 30 Nov 2015

The construction agreement for Al-Dabaa nuclear reactor heralds a new phase in Egyptian-Russian relations

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi stands as Russian - Egyptian officials sings the first Egyptian nuclear plant deal (Photo: Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi official Facebook page)

Egyptian-Russian relations are moving beyond the confusion surrounding the management of investigations into the crash of a Russian passenger plane in Sinai on 31 October. One sign of the shift is the finalising of the agreement between Cairo and Moscow on the construction of Al-Dabaa nuclear reactor. The deal was signed last week by Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker and the Director of Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation Sergey Kiriyenko. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi presided over the signing ceremony.

Another remarkable sign was a meeting held in Cairo on Tuesday between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Al-Sisi and Shoigu discussed joint efforts to combat terrorism in the region, with Russia stressing its readiness to support Egypt in its war against terrorism.

Facilities of Al-Dabaa: Al-Dabaa nuclear power station will comprise four third-generation nuclear reactors each capable of generating 1,300 megawatts. Construction will be financed by a 35-year loan, to be repaid from the revenues generated by electricity production. Egyptian scientists and technicians will receive training in all aspects of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and local companies will provide 20 per cent of construction input.

AIMS: Egyptian experts connected to the project were impressed by the timing of the agreement. Although a memorandum of understanding between Egypt’s National Centre for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Control and Russia’s Federal Service for Environmental, Technological, and Nuclear Supervision was signed in February, experts say the timing of the signing of a final deal sends several messages, not least that the two countries have overcome the crisis in bilateral ties that followed the Russian plane disaster.

“One cannot help but to wonder why, every time a deal to complete the project is about to be finalised, something or other brings the whole process to a halt,” Yousri Abu Shadi, an expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Al-Ahram Weekly in an earlier interview. “The January revolution erupted a week before an agreement with the US over the project was due to be concluded.”

This time, however, there appears to have been sufficient willpower to overcome all obstacles with both Cairo and Moscow keen to stand firm over the deal.

“Officials from the two countries have put the frustration Moscow felt at Cairo’s management of the airplane crisis behind them,” says an expert on Egyptian-Russian relations. “They are keen to tick off a host of items on the agenda of bilateral relations.”

“Egypt is looking forward to the construction of the nuclear station at Al-Dabaa as a new edifice to be added to the record of achievements realised through Egyptian-Russian cooperation and a symbol of how highly the Egyptian people value Egyptian-Russian friendship,” Al-Sisi said during the signing ceremony. “Signing [the agreement] sends a message of hope, action and peace to us in Egypt and to the whole world…Egypt has long dreamed of having a peaceful nuclear reactor.”

A new economic deal: Total output of 4,800 megawatts may not seem much for a developing nation the size of Egypt but it is a significant step in diversifying sources of energy and bringing more cost effective generation online.

“We need to view the project from a development perspective, independent of its political framework,” says Ibrahim Al-Ghitani, a researcher at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. “The gains for the future of industry and production in Egypt are significant.”

Al-Ghitani points out that the financing of the deal, with its 35-year payback period, is a clear sign of Moscow’s commitment to the long-term support of Egypt.

Al-Dabaa nuclear reactor, says Al-Ghitani, should be viewed as a prototype that can be rolled out at other sites in Egypt. In this respect it is essential to develop local capabilities, especially with regard to producing nuclear material for power generation.

“The experience of South Korea in this area is something we can learn from,” says Al-Ghitani. He also stresses the potential of the project “to generate a range of new industries in the service and other sectors”.

Plans to build a nuclear power station at Al-Dabaa date to the early 1980s. Following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 the project was placed on hold and no action to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was taken until 2008 when Cairo revived the project. Russia was one of several countries that bid to win the contract when it was again put on hold.

Mechanisms of implementation: Following the signing of the nuclear power agreement, Mohamed Ibrahim Shaker, a member of the IAEA’s team of nuclear safety experts, told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat news agency that he had undertaken several preliminary studies of the project and 80 per cent of the basic infrastructure was already in place. The project is being undertaken “in the framework of Egypt’s policy to diversify primary energy sources to meet the growth in demand, promote development and stimulate employment and investment,” he said.

“Egypt already has an agreement with the IAEA allowing for the inspection of the nuclear reactor in the Anshas area of the Sharqiya governorate which produces radioactive elements for medical and pharmaceutical research,” says Shaker. Once Al-Dabaa project is complete Cairo will either expand the existing agreement or sign a new one to allow Al-Dabaa plant to be included in periodic IAEA inspections.

Egypt is a signatory party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, article 4 of which permits state parties to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. “The framework for Egypt to cooperate with the IAEA is already established, and covers training, scientific consultation and other areas of cooperation,” Shaker says.

Al-Dabaa plant, he adds, will offer local scientists an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the latest developments in the field and to be trained in internationally recognised safety protocols.

Future steps and challenges: “The project requires two types of infrastructure,” says Ali Salam, a member of the National Centre for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Control. “The first, of which 80 per cent is complete, involves roads, electricity links, communication networks, security, water, labour and a nearby airport.”

The second type includes the reactors and the plants housing them. Construction is expected to take two years during which the Centre for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Control will monitor all building work.

“The structure, mainly built of reinforced concrete, will require huge amounts of equipment, workers and specialists from Egypt and abroad,” says Salam. “The construction phase will provide a large number of much needed jobs.”

Training programmes will also hone the skills of Egyptian scientists and technicians. “Before we were working without a specific goal whereas now we have a project that has to be completed,” says Salam. “We originally began work on this project in the early 1980s. Then, suddenly, president Mubarak ordered the work to stop. There were political pressures at play, the US wanted the brakes put on and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 provided cover to abandon the project. Today the political will exists to complete what we started three decades ago and the nuclear power station will be constructed despite US and Israeli objections. In the past Washington told us up front, ‘Drop the nuclear project, Israel does not approve.’”

Salam also identifies “a handful of ignoramuses, backed by special interest groups, promoting the idea the project will have catastrophic effects on the environment.”  Such people, he insists, will not prevent the project moving forward.

More than 20 Egyptian scientists have already visited Russia to become better acquainted with the details of the project. Exchange visits between Egyptian and Russian scientists and other experts have been taking place since last year. One source, part of a delegation of experts to Russia, notes that company overseeing Al-Dabaa project is currently building 30 nuclear reactors in 12 countries.


This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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