Russia has always been at the forefront of nuclear research and technology. Decades of experience in this area that Russian companies have makes them an attractive partner for all other states pursuing ways to acquire peaceful nuclear technology. Russian nuclear scientists are now working in Iran, China, India, the countries of Central and Southeast Asia. Now they are also searching for new partners in North Africa.
The first country from this region deciding to acquire its own nuclear energy production capabilities with Russia’s help is the Arab Republic of Egypt. It should be recalled that this state has already has experience in nuclear cooperation with the former Soviet Union. The nuclear program of Egypt began in the 1950s under then President of Egypt, Gamal Nasser. Back then a research center was established in Inshas, a small town some 40 miles from Cairo, where Soviet specialists built a small research reactor of the ETRR-1 family. In the late 1980s, Egypt experienced a decline in nuclear energy ambitions due in part to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. However, some Egyptian projects in this were carried forward regardless. For instance, in 1998 a second nuclear reactor was built in Inshas with the help of Argentinian scientists. However, the reactors – both Soviet and Argentine – were not designed to fulfill the demand of the Egyptian economy, since they were only capable of producing radioisotopes for medical, industrial and agricultural purposes.
Over the last several decades, Egypt accumulated considerable scientific and technical potential along with acquiring enough scientific human resource in this area to launch new projects. Additionally, this country has established facilities enabling Cairo to process used nuclear fuel. It should also be noted that Egypt has at least four uranium deposits at its disposal. Thus, this country is fully prepared to take a step forward and begin using nuclear energy on an industrial scale with all of its activities in the nuclear field being constantly monitored by the IAEA. There’s virtually no obstacles that could prevent Egypt from enjoying the benefits of cheap nuclear energy.
In 2006, Egyptian authorities announced their desire to build a number of nuclear power plants. At that point, Egypt started searching for foreign partners that would share their technologies with its scientists and make investments in the project. At the final stage, the country faced a choice between China, the US and Russia and here’s where decades of Soviet-Egyptian cooperation paid off. In 2008, an agreement on cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear energy was concluded between Egypt and Russia. This document gave Russia the chance to compete for the contract on the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant.
The decision on who was going to fulfill the contract was to be made by Cairo on January 2011, but political events then jeopardized the schedule. Nevertheless, Egypt did not abandon its nuclear program since the country was and still is in dire need of cheap energy. In addition, in recent years, Egypt has been undergoing a tough transition, but its development of peaceful nuclear technology will help it to maintain its status as one of the leaders of the Arab world. Therefore, the government of Abdul-Fattah As-Sisi recognized the development of Egyptian nuclear capabilities as a strategically important project for the Egyptian state.
In 2015, it was finally announced that Russia would be building Egypt’s fist nuclear power plant. According to the head of the Egyptian state, Russian technologies were chosen due to their high level of security. It seems that after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, increasing the reliability of nuclear power plants has been been the primary concern of virtually all states engaged in nuclear energy. Yet, Russian nuclear reactors meet the most demanding safety requirements and are able to prevent nuclear catastrophe even in the event of a natural disaster similar to the one that hit Japan back in 2011. Abdul-Fattah Al-Sisi has also noted in one of his speeches that Russia’s deal was the most economically viable. Therefore, back in 2015, Russia and Egypt signed an agreement on bilateral cooperation in the construction and maintenance of the first Egyptian nuclear plant power, powered by four units. At the same time, Russia decided to provide Egypt with a loan of 25 billion dollars to make this project possible. Egypt must then allocate a margin of profits produced by the station to pay off the debt. The station is going to be located, as planned, near the city of El-Dabaa, on the Mediterranean Sea coast.
The Russian state corporation Rosatom will take care of the construction which is believed will take 12 years. Last year it was reported that Russian specialists had already started preparing a construction site for the future station. However, to begin construction, it was first necessary to sign a number supplementary documents – contracts that enable Egyptian personnel training and the establishment of nuclear fuel supplies. It was expected that the entire package of documents would be signed before the end of 2016. At the end of December 2016, the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy announced that negotiations are nearing their conclusion and all contracts will be signed soon. The reason for the delay were issues related to the schedule of the transfer of Russia’s loan.
In January 2017, a delegation of representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Justice and other departments visited Moscow to hold talks with the Russian government and the representatives of Rosatom. According to the Egyptian side, during the negotiations in Moscow all the disputed issues were successfully resolved.
In early February 2017, Egypt’s Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy announced to the media that the contracts were almost completed. Their signing is scheduled for April 2017.
The construction of the first Egyptian nuclear power plant in El-Dabaa may open into a new horizon for Rosatom. After all, the development of Egypt’s nuclear program is surely to inspire its neighbors, including Algeria, Sudan, Libya, etc. If the Egyptian project succeeds, and the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant goes fully operational within the scheduled timetable, these countries may also become interested in Russian nuclear technology. North Africa is a vast region with a developing economy that badly needs cheap energy. No local players possess nuclear technology, leaving Russian nuclear scientists as pioneers in this new energy frontier.
Dmitry Bokarev, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“