Analysis: Cairo climbs the nuclear pyramid

Announcement Egypt to cooperate with Russia to develop its nuclear energy program is no surprise.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The announcement that Egypt is going to cooperate with Russia to develop its nuclear energy program should not come as a surprise. After all, the Soviet Union was the first country to start cooperation with Egypt in this field in 1961, when it built its first two-megawatt nuclear center for research in the town of Inchass. That is where Egypt began to acquire knowledge and expertise in the field of nuclear technology and to train its first nuclear technicians. Subsequently, Egypt made a number of attempts to develop an advanced program of nuclear energy, but with little success, abandoning its efforts some time after the Chernobyl accident in 1986. At that point, it was about to issue an international tender to build a nuclear reactor for the production of electricity, but bowed to pressure from the US and the Soviet Union, worried about safety problems following that disaster, and canceled its project. The program was officially resurrected 18 months ago. In September 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, in his capacity of chairman of the political committee of the ruling party, announced to the General Congress that Egypt intended to restart its nuclear program for peaceful purposes and was going to set up reactors to produce electricity. This declaration was confirmed by the president two days later. The driving force behind that decision was the ongoing nuclear crisis with Iran. Egypt, which is proud of its status as the largest and most powerful Arab country, cannot afford to ignore nuclear technology - today an essential part of a country's power and strength. Sunni Egypt was compelled to enter the field to counterbalance Shi'ite Iran's growing threat to the international community and to the Middle East. One must not forget that, according to a UN report, the oil and gas reserves of Egypt will start to dwindle in 2016, while Egypt's population will have gone past the 100-million mark and it will need a lot of energy to produce its electricity. It is therefore obvious that whatever the angle, Egypt has no choice but to develop its nuclear energy. It's original intentions might be for peaceful purposes, but military considerations will undoubtedly come later. Egypt lost no time in setting down the basis for its program. The government announced that it would be carried out under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in complete transparency. An IAEA delegation visited Egypt three months ago to look at alternative sites for the plants and advise Egypt on some of the technical and technological issues. An Egyptian delegation traveled to Vienna to present and discuss the draft law on nuclear energy it had prepared, which is expected to be submitted to the Egyptian Parliament in the coming weeks. Two main problems dominated the debate in the government and in the press: the choice of site and with which countries to cooperate in building the reactors. As far as the site was concerned, it was believed that it would be at Dabaa on the northern Mediterranean coast, 160 kilometers west of Alexandria. The area can host four reactors of 800-1,000 megawatts each, which is what Egypt needs in the first phase. The necessary studies were carried out at the beginning of the 1980s and the site was found eminently suitable as far as soil composition, proximity and availability of water, and rarity of earthquakes. Preliminary infrastructure work has already been carried out, but nothing has been decided yet. Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif is under considerable pressure from a group of businessmen who would like to see a huge tourist complex there. However, it seems that this site is the best Egypt has available at present for its nuclear facilities, and the debate is raging. The second issue has to do with which countries would be the most suitable for nuclear cooperation. A number of officials favor Russia and China, good friends of Egypt. Others fear that these countries do not have the best technology available, especially in the field of safety. Both the US and France have declared their readiness to help. It is well known that they have the right technology. However, many Egyptians believe that these countries would insist on many controls to which Egypt would be reluctant to agree, in spite of its declaration of transparency. This was confirmed last December when Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that Egypt would not sign the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Egypt signed the NPT in 1963 and ratified it in 1981. The Additional Protocol was added later, after Iraq tried to evade the IAEA controls. This protocol gives the IAEA the right to conduct in-depth searches with no advance notice. As long as Egypt refuses to accept the protocol, Western countries will have difficulty cooperating with Egypt. Mubarak's visit to Russia this week is very important for Egypt. Trade between the two countries rose from $300 million in 2003 to $2.1 billion in 2007, a sound basis for the development of a nuclear partnership between the two countries. A draft agreement to that effect was prepared in December, to be signed Tuesday in Moscow by Electricity and Energy Minister Hassan Younes, with Mubarak present. It will be the first cooperation agreement signed with a foreign country since Mubarak's declaration about reviving his country's nuclear program. This will undoubtedly give Russia an advantage, but it does not mean Egypt will ultimately grant Russia the contract to build the plants. Turning its back on America, which sends billions of dollars in aid each year and cooperates with Egypt in a number of projects, might lead to a crisis in the relations between the two countries. The present steps, however, might be seen as a means of letting the US know that it should not push Egypt too far. Zvi Mazel is a former ambassador to Egypt.