Egypt decided, at last, to go nuclear

“We believe that energy security is a major part of building a future for the country, and an integral part of Egypt’s national security system,” thus spoke the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak upon inaugurating an electricity power plant north of Cairo last month. This fact was a prelude to a bombshell announcement made by the president about the government’s plan to pursue peaceful nuclear technology and build a number of nuclear stations.

To emphasise the government’s resolve on a course of action, Mubarak promised to shortly issue a decree to establish a supreme council for peaceful nuclear power development. Headed by the president, the council will include the prime minister in addition to concerned ministers. The new council will coordinate a national nuclear energy strategy with all concerned parties, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Mubarak also asked the government to draft laws to govern the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

The decision, as a matter of fact, sparked a wave of reactions on the domestic and international arenas. Most of the opposition parties cast doubts on the government’s seriousness about going nuclear, citing the Al-Dabaa nuclear station – which the government announced it was going to build it over a year ago but hasn’t started yet; as an example of the government’s failure to honour its commitment. Many opposition figures saw the announcement as a calculated move before the National Democratic Party’s 9th annual congress to give a facelift to the ruling party’s image.

The public opinion, according to press reports, varied from unchecked support of the nuclear program to disappointment as, they think, the government failed in implementing similar mega projects like Toshka.

On the international arena, key capitals of major powers welcomed, or at least didn’t object to, the initiative. The White House first said it had little information about Egypt’s plans to relaunch its nuclear power program, but declared itself “generally supportive” of civilian atomic power. “I don’t know a lot about it. In general, we are supportive of countries pursuing civil nuclear energy. It’s clean burning. It provides electricity in a clean-burning and affordable way for citizens,” said spokeswoman Dana Perino.

“We are working with some countries in order to help them get there. But in regards to the Egyptian program… I don’t know any more specifics about it,” Perino told reporters. Later on, Washington, as well as other key European capitals, said they were ready to help in the project.

However, Israel, as usual, expressed deep concerns over the revival of the Egyptian program. “If Egypt and Saudi Arabia begin nuclear programs, this can bring an apocalyptic scenario upon us,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the English-language Jerusalem Post newspaper. “Their intentions should be taken seriously and the declarations being made now are to prepare the world for when they decide to actually do it,” said the minister who is responsible for coordinating Israeli efforts against a nuclear Iran and head of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.

Domestic and international reactions apart, energy experts saw the decision coming in time in light of the skyrocketing oil prices that hit $98 last month. In addition, demand for electricity has been growing at an average rate of 7% a year and the country has ambitious development goals to achieve. In view of the soaring price of oil – jumping in less than 10 years from $17.5 per barrel to $61 last year and $98 in November – economists think it is economically insane for a developing country like Egypt to keep ignoring the nuclear option.

Other experts, like Ahmed El-Sayed El-Naggar of Al-Ahram Centre for Policitcal and Strategic Studies, opines that “the regime has become very sensitive to the fact that Egypt is perceived as a lesser regional power than Iran,” which has pursued its own nuclear energy program despite all international pressures. Like most government critics, El-Naggar is disappointed at the government’s failure to live up to the promises it made a year ago of building a nuclear station in Al-Dabaa. “This created a major credibility problem for a government that is already short on credibility,” he said.

“If Egypt and Saudi Arabia begin nuclear programs, this can bring an apocalyptic scenario upon us,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Electricity, one of the concerned parties, started preparations for the nuclear stations. “The implementation [of the nuclear stations] will take from 8 to 10 years,” Minster of Electricity Hassan Younis told the daily Al-Ahram. Younis indicated that the government is planning prompt action but offered no specific details, save for the important fact that Egypt will most likely buy, rather than process, nuclear fuel.

According to government officials, Egypt will seek the help of its international partners like the US, Canada, Japan, France or Russia, or perhaps more than one country, in the construction of its first power station that is likely to be based on a single reactor.

Egypt’s nuclear program, in fact, dates back to 1964. The government then announced a project to build a nuclear station to generate electricity and desalinate water. The project was interrupted due to the 1967 War. In the 1980s, the government wanted to revive its nuclear project, and it was on the verge of signing the contract of the construction of the first nuclear station, but the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine in 1986 deterred the government from going ahead with its program. However, it did maintain a small experimental nuclear reactor.

Ali Islam, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Agency, didn’t fix a specific date on the taking of bids for the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power station. Islam stressed the determination of the state to build and operate its first reactor within eight years maximum. And that’s why, perhaps, economists are still skeptic about the government’s taking prompt action to start the long stopped program. “If this government wants to prove it is serious then I expect to learn of a bid for the construction of the first reactor at the previously chosen site of Al-Dabaa in a few weeks, not a few months,” El-Naggar said

By Mohamed El-Sayed

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