Egypt’s Nuclear Energy Initiative

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By Shaul Shay*

Talks between the P5+1 negotiating team and Iranian foreign minister and lead negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on a comprehensive nuclear deal, took place during the February 6-8 annual Munich Security Conference. The P5+1 seeks a comprehensive, verifiable nuclear agreement that would block Iran’s major potential pathways to nuclear weapons development–the uranium-enrichment route and the plutonium-separation route–and guard against a clandestine weapons program, thus removing a major threat to international security. Negotiators are working toward a new deadline of June 30, 2015, for a comprehensive agreement, with a target date of the end of March 2015 for a political framework.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart declared on February 10, 2015 that the two countries plan to build jointly Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Egyptian president, El-Sisi, told reporters that memoranda of understanding had been signed on the plant’s construction.

Putin stressed that the deal was not finalized but that it had major potential.[1] Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country would help build “a whole new nuclear power industry in Egypt. We discussed the possibility of cooperation in nuclear power engineering. If final decisions are made, they will relate not only to the construction of a nuclear power plant but also to the creation of a whole new nuclear power industry in Egypt.” Russia would also aid in providing staff and scientific research, added Putin.[2]

Ambassador Mohamed Shaker, chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said Egypt chose Russia as the latter produces cheaper nuclear reactors of good quality. After long years of waiting, Egypt should choose a reliable source for this huge project, said Shaker, who (incidentally) was assigned membership on several UN committees devoted to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Egypt did not wait to bid out the contract, but gave the project to Russia with “direct order” just to save time, he added. The plant will take four or five years and be constructed over a four-km area, Shaker explained, adding it is a water-compressing reactor without affecting the surrounding areas.[3]

In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s Rosatom state-controlled nuclear corporation, said that technical and commercial details of the project have yet to be finalized. He said that the agreement envisages (1) a power plant with four reactors producing 1,200 megawatts each, (2) new technology with strong safety measures that take into account lessons learned during the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, and (3) a loan for its construction. Along with the reactors, the plant will also have desalination capacities, Kiriyenko said, adding that Rosatom will provide its fuel, train personnel, and build necessary infrastructure.

A delegation of Egyptian nuclear power experts and officials headed to Moscow on February 14, 2015, to meet with Russian officials for talks on the Egyptian nuclear power-generation program to be implemented in partnership with Russia. The delegation in Russia this week includes the head of Egypt’s Nuclear Power Plants Authority, Khalil Yaso, the head of the Egypt’s Atomic Energy Authority, Atef El-Kadim, and the deputy president of Egypt’s Nuclear and Radiological Regulatory Authority, Walid Zeidan, in addition to officials from the ministry of electricity. The delegation will visit nuclear energy training centers and nuclear power plants in Moscow.[4]

Background

The Egyptian nuclear program began during 1954–1961 when it acquired from the Soviet Union a 2-megawatt reactor. Egypt set up its Atomic Energy Commission in 1955 which, in the following year, became the Atomic Energy Authority. This entity is responsible for licensing and regulation. In 1964 a 150 MWe nuclear plant with 20,000 m3/day desalination capacity was proposed; then in 1974 a 600 MWe plant was proposed for Sidi Kreir near Alexandria. The government’s Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA) was established in 1976, and in 1978 plans were drawn up for ten reactors by 1999 with 7200 MWe capacity, at Sidi Kreir, Al Arish, Cairo and in Upper Egypt. Talks then with French, German and Austrian interests as well as Westinghouse came to nothing.

In 1983 the El Dabaa site on the Mediterranean coast 250 km west of Alexandria and Zafraana on the Gulf of Suez were selected for nuclear plants. Although the 1983 plans for El Dabba were not realized, the site was recently revived as a possible location for a nuclear power plant.

The Report of the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Energy

In July 2012, the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Energy published a report that argued for the creation of a nuclear program. The report stated that Egypt’s increasing demand for electricity, requiring an additional 300 megawatts annually, cannot be met under the current system. In addition, the drop in both traditional sources of energy and employment opportunities means that Egypt should pursue the more economically feasible alternative of nuclear energy. The project incorporated specifications following the disaster at the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011.

The report said that the nuclear plant in Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coastline, will be the first of four nuclear power plants around the country. Under the plan, Dabaa will become operational in 2019 and will create jobs, giving the area a needed economic boost. The last nuclear plant would become operational by 2025.

The first brick of Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant was laid under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Site development was halted due to disputes with local residents, who accused the state of confiscating their land by force and without proper compensation.

In January 2012, Dabaa locals stormed the construction site, destroying existing infrastructure and refusing to surrender to military police. Low radioactive sources were also looted from the location, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In April 2013 Egypt approached Russia to renew its nuclear cooperation agreement, focused on construction of a nuclear power plant at El Dabaa and joint development of uranium deposits.

In October 2013 the Minister for Electricity & Energy reactivated plans for El Dabaa, and announced a site office there for the Nuclear Power Plant Authority. In January 2014 the Ministry said it would issue a tender at the end of the month and announce the contractor in June. In mid-2014 the target date for the tender was December 2014, and it was made plain that the winner would need to finance the plant. The Russian Foreign Minister said in November 2013 that Russia was ready to finance an Egyptian nuclear plant.

In late 2013, local tribal families from Dabaa and Marsa Matrouh (a sea port 240 kilometers west of Alexandria) relinquished the nuclear construction site to the Egyptian armed forces after months of occupying the controversial area. The Egyptian government started developing the infrastructure for a nuclear power plant in May 2014 in Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast.[5]

In a speech in September 2014, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said that electricity production and distribution were not developed enough to keep up with consumption. The speech was a response to a large-scale power outage in various parts of the country, part of an ongoing power crisis that has seen recurrent power outages nationwide throughout the summer.

The scarcity of water has also become a rising concern. The state’s statistics agency reported in May 2014 that Egyptians have on average access to 663 cubic meters of clean water annually, well below the international water poverty threshold.

According to Nuclear Affairs and Energy Adviser at the Ministry of Electricity Ibrahim Al-Osery, the project has the potential to provide up to 50% of Egypt’s electric energy capacity. He claimed that implementation delays cost the country approximately $8bn annually, adding that over the past 30 years Egypt has lost approximately $200bn.[6]

Top Egyptian and Russian officials met last November 2014 in order to discuss an agreement to use nuclear power to generate electricity in Egypt. The nuclear reactor that will be constructed in Dabaa after the president issues his decision will be a normal pressurized water reactor.[7]

Motivations and Capabilities

The growing need for energy is not the only motivation behind Egypt’s interest in a nuclear power program. Egypt sees itself as the leader of the Arab world; therefore a decision to pursue nuclear energy serves political purposes domestically as well as internationally. Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear activities could elicit a regional nuclear race, as Tehran’s traditional rivals in the Middle East–Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states–could counter the Iranian threat with nuclear programs of their own.

The Threat of Nuclear Weapon Program

If Egypt were to decide to develop nuclear weapons it would not be starting from zero. Egypt’s nuclear program, which began in 1954, features two research reactors and a hot-cell laboratory, all located at Inshas in the Delta.[8]  They are used for peaceful purposes and are under International Atomic Energy Agency – or IAEA – safeguards. Analysts agree that Egypt tried to acquire nuclear weapons back in the 1960s, but ultimately decided not to do so because of political and economic reasons.[9]

Past nuclear endeavors have left Egypt with an experienced group of physicists and engineers and a number of universities capable of training a new generation of nuclear scientists. During the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) in 2004 opened an investigation into irradiation experiments and the unreported import of nuclear materials, and in 2007 and 2008 IAEA found traces of Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU), all at Inshas. After each, the IAEA issued brief, bland reports, but the last case is apparently still open, while similar traces of HEU found in facilities in Iran provided the first clue that Pakistan had been aiding Tehran’s nuclear program.[10]

Although Egypt signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, it has refused to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which permits spot inspections, as well as treaties banning the possession of chemical and biological weapons.

Despite possessing a relatively advanced capability in nuclear technology, Egypt is many years away from the ability to produce nuclear weapons if it chose to do so.

Summary

The agreement between Egypt and Russia will provide Egypt with a nuclear energy program, one that could potentially be diverted for weapons purposes. Several variables may inhibit or advance this possibility, including leadership priorities, supplier-based constraints, financial difficulties, and safety concerns. Egypt is a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is the leading proponent of establishing a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

The US would not oppose a nuclear deal for peaceful purposes, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on February 10, 2015. “We support peaceful nuclear power programs as long as obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which Egypt is a signatory and obligations to the IAEA are fully met and the highest international standards regulating security, nonproliferation, export controls, and physical security are strictly followed,” she said.[11]

On September 10, 2014, the Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations at Geneva, Amr Ahmed Ramadan called for an international convention to ban the production of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons. Ramadan made the remarks during the closing session of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), 2014 held in Geneva. Also, Ramadan reiterated the importance of nuclear-armed states providing guarantees that they will not threaten non-nuclear powers.

Ramadan expressed disappointment over failure to carry out the results of the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) held in 1995.The review conference endorsed the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process and recognized that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.[12]

Conclusion: It remains to be Seen Whether Egypt will Change its Nuclear Policy

Egypt’s desire for a nuclear program could also be seen as part of the wider Sunni reaction to Iran’s program and what they fear will be a Shia nuclear bomb, which will cast a shadow over the entire region. Iran’s program has already triggered a number of “civilian” nuclear programs in other Sunni Arab countries.[13]

President Obama has vowed that he is willing to do whatever it takes, including using military force, if necessary, to keep Tehran from the bomb. If not stopped, a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to regional and international security. Neighbors’ fears of Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions and the emergence of new security dilemmas could ignite a nuclear arms race in the region, producing more proliferation. This poses a significant threat to regional security simply because the more countries that acquire a nuclear weapon, the greater the risk one may eventually use it.

Notes

[1] Brian Rohan and Vladimir and Sachenkov, “Putin’s Visit to Egypt Nets Plan to Build Nuclear Plant,” Associated Press, February 10, 2015.

[2] Ariel Ben Solomon, “State Department Says US Would Not Oppose a Nuclear Deal for Peaceful Purposes,” Jerusalem Post, February 11, 2015.

[3] ”News Analysis: Cairo-Moscow Nuclear Deal Vital for Egypt’s Development,” Strategic Culture Foundation, February 13, 2015.

[4] ”Egyptian Nuclear Delegation Heads to Moscow,” Ahram online, February 14, 2015; http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/122995/Egypt/Politics-/Egyptian-nuclear-delegation-heads-to-Moscow.aspx., accessed February 14, 2015.

[5] ”Egypt Announces Fees for Nuclear Plant Permit,” Ahram online, October 3, 2014; http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/3/12/112312/Business/Economy/Egypt-announces-fees-for-nuclear-plant-permit.aspx; accessed February 14, 2015.

[6] Abdel Razek Al-Shuwekhi, “Dabaa Nuclear Project to Provide 50% of Electrical Power to Egypt: Electricity Ministry Nuclear Affairs and Energy Adviser,” Egypt Daily News, October 3, 2014.

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Raymond Stock, “As Obama Dithers, Egypt Ramps up its Nuclear Options,” FoxNews.com, January 09, 2014; http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/01/09/as-obama-dithers-egypt-ramps-up-its-nuclear-options/, accessed February 14, 2015.

[9] ”Will New Egyptian Government Pursue Nuclear Weapons?” Voice of America, February 18, 2011;  http://www.voanews.com/content/article–will-new-egyptian-government-pursue-nuclear-weapons-116495373/160213.html, accessed February 14, 2015.

[10] Raymond Stock, “As Obama Dithers.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] ”Egypt Calls for Ban on Fissile Material Production for Nuclear Weapons,” September 11, 2014;  http://allafrica.com/stories/201409120325.html, accessed February 14, 2015.

[13] Ariel ben Solomon, “Why is Impoverished Egypt Seeking a Nuclear Program? Jerusalem Post, April 25, 2013; http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Why-is-impoverished-Egypt-seeking-a-nuclear-program-311012, accessed February 14, 2015.


*Egypt’s Nuclear Energy Initiative by Shaul Shay (Colonel, Res). The author served 27 years in the IDF as a paratrooper officer and in Military Intelligence. From 2000 to 2007 he was the head of the IDF Military History Department and from 2007 to 2009 he was the deputy head of the National Security Council (NSC) of Israel. Shaul Shay earned his MA and PhD from the Bar Ilan University and he is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzeliya (IDC) where he is also the director of research of the IPS and a senior research fellow of the International Policy Institute for counter Terrorism (ICT). Dr. Shay is the author and the editor of 18 books; his latest book, Somalia in Transition, was published by Transaction Publishers in 2014. Copyright, Shaul Shay. Posted March 2, 2015.