Last month, after an announcement that Russia would help Egypt build a nuclear power plant and launch a new nuclear industry, the Arabic hashtag “think of a name for the nuclear reactor” trended on Twitter.
Memes of Homer Simpson, Fox television’s feckless nuclear power plant worker, featured prominently. So did images of chaotic traffic, flooded streets and children picking through garbage.
“We cannot even construct sewers in Egypt, we don’t abide by traffic lights. So how is it that Egypt is going to build a nuclear reactor without disastrous implications for the country, the region, the whole Mediterranean area?” asks Hamdy Hafiz.
A youth activist from Dabaa, the site of the planned nuclear reactor, Hafiz has particular reason to be concerned, but he is not alone.
Behind closed doors, Egyptian officials have also admitted the country is nowhere near ready to launch a nuclear program. According to classified US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, Nuclear Power Plants Authority Chairman Yassin Ibrahim told American officials in 2009 that Egypt suffered from a lack of “human capacity” without enough trained professionals “at every level” and in “all sectors” related “even indirectly” to a nuclear power program.
Egypt’s higher education system, Ibrahim added, was not capable of closing this gap in the near future.
Egypt’s existing nuclear program also has something of a checkered past. The country currently operates two small research reactors at its Inshas Nuclear Research Center in the northeastern suburbs of Cairo — a 22 megawatt reactor built by an Argentine company, active since 1997, and a two megawatt Soviet reactor that went online in 1961.
In 2010, both the director and head of maintenance at Inshas quit, citing “corruption” and “deteriorating conditions,” according to reports by Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The following year the Inshas reactor sprung a leak, not once but twice. The liquid was contained, and accounts vary as to whether the leaked fluid was radioactive. According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, both the former director of the facility and the former head of the department of atomic reactions claim the liquid was radioactive, and that a major environmental catastrophe was narrowly averted. Others maintain it was not contaminated, although they do not deny that leaks occurred.
In 2012, nuclear material was reportedly stolen from a safe during a demonstration at the site of the proposed nuclear power plant in Dabaa. This was followed by a fire outside the walls of Inshas — the blaze was contained, and apparently unconnected to the reactor, but it still raised questions about security and maintenance at the center.
Officials have also claimed that Egypt’s conventional power stations have been targets of sabotage by terrorists, blaming power shortages on attacks by supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi.
Proponents of Egypt’s nuclear dreams brush these concerns aside.
“I’m sure that Egypt has the capability and the will to have trained operators when the plant comes online,” says Mounir Megahed, a former vice chairman of Egypt’s Nuclear Power Plants Authority who is now a technical adviser to the agency.
Megahed is so confident in the safety of future nuclear plants in Egypt that he even dismisses concerns that a nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean Coast could thwart attempts to develop the region for tourism.
Dabaa, which lies between Alamein and Marsa Matrouh, is part of a strip of coast that former Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou listed as a development priority, the white sand and blue sea of which he hoped would help spark a renaissance for Egypt’s battered tourist industry.
“I don’t think the kinds of tourists we are targeting will be frightened,” Megahed says, noting that many Americans and Europeans live near nuclear reactors in their home countries. He envisions that the site could even become a tourist attraction in its own right: “People go to the information center, they buy replicas of the reactor, and go to swim not far away from the power plant.”
“It’s much cheaper, cleaner and safer than coal,” Megahed adds.
Counting up the cost
He estimates that building a 1,000 megawatt reactor will cost Egypt around US$5 billion, although any company trying to secure a bid to build nuclear reactors in Egypt will also be expected to help the country arrange financing for the deal. By contrast, a natural gas plant of the same capacity costs about one fifth of that, but requires a constant supply of costly fuel.
Megahed and other proponents of nuclear power claim the lower cost of fuel over time more than balances out the up-front costs — a contention debated back and forth by economists.
With Egypt newly embracing coal-fired power plants, the argument for nuclear power being cleaner does carry some weight.
“One kilogram of uranium 235 gives the heat equivalent to 2,400 tons of coal,” Megahed says. “We will need maybe 30 tons of fuel per nuclear reactor every three years.”
In November 2013, a group of top climate scientists made a similar argument, saying that with carbon emissions rising, “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”
Other scientists contend that rapidly dropping costs and rising efficiency for alternative fuels such as wind and solar energy make nuclear power a false economy, especially given the high up-front costs and years required to get a nuclear reactor online.
Egypt, with its year-round sun and high winds along the Red Sea is considered to be one of the world’s most promising countries for alternative energy, although the sector remains undeveloped.
Another cost — both financial and environmental — is the storage of spent fuel, which can remain dangerously radioactive for millennia. This is a problem no one in the world has yet solved, and it’s not clear what Egypt plans to do.
Waste could be stored on-site for 100 years, suggests Megahed, a relatively common industry practice. Or perhaps Russia would agree to take back spent fuel, as it has done for Iran, he adds, thereby pushing the problem to another place and another time.
Despite the potential problems, Egypt seems determined to push ahead. The reasons seem psychological as much as pragmatic.
“The important thing is to show the Egyptian people have capabilities,” says Megahed.
In this, he echoes a quote attributed to Nasser in the 1950s: “We missed out in the steam age and also in the electricity age, but we ought not to allow ourselves under any circumstances to be left behind in the atomic age.”
Egypt, of course, was left behind, apart from the research reactor at Inshas, but the dream was revived by every president since: Sadat, Mubarak, Mansour, and now Sisi.
“I think the nuclear power program would play the same role as the high dam,” says Megahed, comparing the proposed reactor to the hydroelectric dam, built with Soviet aid in the 1960s, that both electrified the country and served as sign of independence, progress and strength.
A site of contention
The plan to build a reactor in Dabaa also shares another quality with the Aswan dam: the dislocation of a marginal population to construct a project aimed at moving the country as a whole forward.
Tens of thousands of Nubians were dislocated for the dam to be built. In Dabaa, building requires relocating thousands of Bedouins, who have used the land for olive groves, grazing and small scale agriculture and for access to the sea for fishing.
Nuclear plants rely on water to cool reactors and to generate steam to drive turbines, so in the 1980s, when the area was selected as a potential nuclear site, the government allocated 17 kilometers of beachfront for the project.
In 2003, the area was forcibly evicted, says area resident Hafiz. At the time, residents were offered LE5 per tree and LE2,000 per house, far below market value.
“We’ve been rendered homeless and jobless as a result of these actions,” Hafiz says.
In the heady post-revolution atmosphere of 2011, residents re-entered the site — with permission from the military, activists say — to use the area for fishing and farming.
“It was like a wasteland, a disaster space,” recalls activist and researcher Hala Makhlouf, who was part of a fact finding mission to the project site. “It was neglected. Thousands of trees died because of poor care.” Little had been built apart from a wall and a few administrative buildings, she says.
In January 2012, the situation escalated, and after clashes with police, Dabaa residents were forced off the land again. Since then, residents have been in a series of negotiations with authorities over compensation and relocation.
According to Makhlouf, the residents’ acquiescence to terms offered by the military since 2013 is driven in part by fear that they could be subjected to what they saw happen to the occupation of Rabea Square in Cairo, and to tribes in Sinai, who are often treated as hostile during an ongoing security crackdown in the peninsula.
At present, Dabaa residents are in talks with military intelligence, Hafiz says. They are requesting fishing and farming rights in the buffer zone around the facility, and asking to be re-housed in the type of homes they are accustomed to living in.
The military has offered around 2,000 feddans for residents’ use and a LE1 billion housing project, and agreed to guarantee jobs at the nuclear plant.
Construction of the basic infrastructure is slated to begin next month, Hafiz says, but no compensation has been paid yet.
Hafiz emphasizes that the members of his community are loyal citizens, and are willing to make sacrifices for the nation, but insist that any development must be carried out safely and fairly, adding, “We want to be reassured regarding our safety, our incomes, the environment, and our children’s futures.”