Going nuclear

Amina Khairy
Wednesday 18 Sep 2019

As work takes off on Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant, two major nuclear energy events taking place in London have underlined the benefits of nuclear power, writes Amina Khairy

Never has the world been as careful, yet outgoing, secretive, but at the same time abiding by the minimum amount of information needed, about a single topic as it is when it comes to things nuclear. 

The utterance of the word can unconsciously lead to images of the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, or more recently to the Fukushima accident in Japan, and so those in charge of the planet’s nuclear science, energy and industry are more than ever keen on opening up to the non-nuclear world, explaining, simplifying and sometimes marketing the idea of nuclear power, which is a fact whether we like it or not. 

Not liking nuclear power does not mean ignoring it or underestimating its power. It is also not enough to rely on the dramatisation of the Chernobyl disaster in the widely viewed “Chernobyl” series that millions all over the world have been watching. This series presents one point of view on what happened in Ukraine in 1986 when a nuclear meltdown horrified the world. There are also more recent memories of the Fukushima accident that occurred in Japan a quarter of a century later. The latter happened following a powerful earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale that was followed by a tsunami, and the phrase “nuclear accident” or “disaster” can still leave the world bewildered and sometimes even refusing to become nuclear literate as a result.

Because of such barriers, the past few days have witnessed two major nuclear events in London. The New Nuclear Watch Institute organised a workshop for international journalists from different countries across the globe. The journalists represented countries that have been relying partly on nuclear energy for a number of years, in addition to others that represent newcomers to the nuclear scene. 

The New Nuclear Watch Institute, chaired by former British minister Tim Yeo, is an industry supported think-tank focused on the international development of nuclear energy as a means for governments to safeguard their long-term sustainable energy needs. The institute believes that nuclear power is vital to achieving the binding Paris Climate Agreement objectives and tackling the challenge of climate change. It is also an ardent believer that nuclear energy is not only a clean, reliable and affordable source of energy, but that its benefits far exceed its risks. 

Yeo is a staunch supporter of nuclear energy. He perceives it as fulfilling three major goals: security, affordability and sustainability. He even views Germany’s decision to phase out its nuclear energy as “a stupid energy policy.” He points to the fact that Germany is increasingly relying on natural gas imported from Russia. He also criticises the French plans to reduce the share of nuclear in their energy mix to 50 per cent by 2035, down from the current 75 per cent. Yeo calls on governments to accept the fact that nuclear power and renewables are not competing against each other. On the contrary, they should complement each other, he says, if the world is serious about preventing dangerous irreversible climate change. 

However, nuclear is not only about governments, politics and the policies of super, medium or mini powers. It is an issue of concern to people. There is a strong belief that introducing nuclear power will have a lifelong effect on people, an effect that could be passed involuntarily from one generation to another no matter what happens. Nuclear power is regarded by many as a lifelong commitment with lasting risks. 

Such risk management and risk perceptions are main concerns of professor of physics Wade Allison. Allison does not limit himself to academic physics, however, and instead he spreads knowledge and tries to understand the limitations of people’s perceptions when it comes to accepting nuclear power. “Can mankind change their culture so that nature and civilisation may live together,” he asks. 

Allison argues that the safety limits of radiation have been set in an irrational manner and are based on illogical and unscientific fears and misunderstandings. He speaks of this in his book “Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear,” which argues that what happened in Chernobyl was not as horrific as it was made to sound and look, that radiation is sometimes good for us, that nuclear waste can be recycled, that renewable energy cannot be relied upon, and that the same thing goes for solar energy. 

Whether Allison’s account of nuclear energy, radiation and the much-debated margin of fear is to be believed or not is not the main issue here. Instead, this is that he offers a well-established, reputable scientific basis for a healthy debate on nuclear energy. Another main issue is that as a scientist he recognises and addresses the power of fear and its cultural and social effects when it comes to taking major decisions such as whether to go for nuclear energy.


NUCLEAR SYMPOSIUM: The two-day London workshop was followed by the World Nuclear Association Symposium, the premier annual event for the global nuclear industry where hundreds of top nuclear energy professionals gather to discuss the most important issues in the industry. 

It is only on rare occasions that others have the opportunity to listen to those in charge of the nuclear industry boasting about their products, recounting stories of success, sharing ways out of things that failed, and looking at the future from a nuclear point of view.

The World Nuclear Performance Report that was released during the symposium shed light on where the world stands now regarding nuclear power. At the end of 2018, the capacity of the world’s 449 operable reactors was 397 GWe, up by four GWe (Gigawatt-Electric) on the previous year. Nine new reactors were connected to the world’s grid, with a combined capacity of 10.4 GWe. Seven reactors were closed down, of these four being Japanese that had not generated electricity since 2011. Four other reactors in Japan were given the approval to restart. 

The number of reactors under construction in the world at the end of 2018 was 55. The report concludes that nuclear plants continue to perform excellently, and that growth is strong, with more than 20 new reactors scheduled to be connected before the end of 2020. However, for the nuclear industry to reach the goal of supplying at least 25 per cent of the world’s electricity before 2050, a greater commitment from policymakers towards nuclear energy is needed.

It is worth mentioning that this goal represents the global nuclear industry’s vision for the future of electricity. It aims to promote harmonised regulatory processes to provide a more internationally consistent, efficient and predictable nuclear licencing regime that allows for standardised solutions to facilitate significant growth of nuclear capacity, without compromising safety and security.

Being exposed to a great deal of information about nuclear energy coming from strong believers in its positive power and endless opportunities, especially when scientists, researchers and engineers are the speakers, eases any anxiety or fear we might have when contemplating Egypt’s upcoming nuclear power plant in Dabaa. Huge advances in technology and great leaps in the industry have taken place since the Chernobyl disaster. Egypt is taking all the necessary steps and precautions to guarantee the highest possible safety standards. 

Only a few days ago, the world’s first floating nuclear power station, built by Russia, completed a 5,000-km Arctic transfer to the country’s far east. According to the Russian Rosatom Nuclear Agency, the floating plant will start operating towards the end of this year after being connected to the electricity grid. The 21-ton, 144-metre long and 30-metre wide platform is designed to meet the energy needs of remote communities. Rosatom head Alexi Likhachev said in a statement that “it is perhaps a small step towards sustainable development in the Arctic, but it’s a giant step towards the decarbonisation of remote, off-grid zones and a turning point in the global development of small modular nuclear plants.”

After spending four days in a nuclear energy friendly environment, in this case in London, one could say that Egypt should be looking forward towards great benefits coming out of nuclear power, but that it should also be keen to see clear and easily understood information being given to the public such that the latter can understand what the green light that has been given to our long-awaited Dabaa nuclear power plant means. 

Last week, president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met Likhachev to discuss the latest developments at the Dabaa nuclear plant. The meeting came only three days after his meeting with the cabinet to review the steps taken at Dabaa.

In 2014, Egypt and Russia struck a deal regarding nuclear power, and in November the following year they signed an agreement allowing Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Dabaa, with Russia extending a $25 billion loan to Egypt to cover the cost of construction. The loan covers 85 per cent of the plant, while Egypt funds the remaining 15 per cent.

According to the deal, Rosatom will finance and construct four third-generation reactors, with a capacity of 1,200 Megawatts (MW) each and a total of 4,800 MW. The plant will be built on approximately 12,000 feddans of land and is expected to create over 50,000 jobs.

The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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