The best way forward: nuclear or renewables for Egypt?

Published online 25 April 2013

Dalia El-Akkad

The Dabaa region, 300km northwest of Cairo, is the proposed location for Egypt's first nuclear reactor.
The Dabaa region, 300km northwest of Cairo, is the proposed location for Egypt's first nuclear reactor.

Egypt, along with several other Arab countries, is considering nuclear energy as a possible solution to its growing need for energy. The controversial industry's image has been further tarnished by events such as the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

As proponents and opponents of nuclear energy continue to argue its merits, Nature Middle East talked to two scientists with opposing viewpoints about the potential of the technology in the Arab world, in particular, Egypt.

Yusri Abu Shadi, the former head of the nuclear engineering department at the University of Alexandria, Egypt, believes nuclear power is essential to achieve energy security and is eager to see Egypt's nuclear programme reinitiated, blaming successive governments for long delays.

Hani El-Nokrashy, co-founder and vice chairman of the supervisory board of Desertec Foundation, a non-profit foundation that promotes renewable energy in the Middle East, argues that nuclear energy is a moribund technology which presents risk that far outweigh its benefits.

Yusri Abu Shadi

Is Egypt currently capable of safely building nuclear reactors?

Egypt has been ready to construct nuclear reactors since the era of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser [1956-1970], but was intentionally stalled by some foreign countries concerned about uranium enrichment, even though Egypt has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

We are left with two remaining problems. The first one is related to insurance contracts with the construction company chosen to build the reactor. We expect the cost of insurance will increase from 3% to 5% to ensure that construction is not halted by any unrest or political events during these turbulent times for Egypt. The second problem is determining whether the Dabaa region, which is the place that was selected to build the first nuclear reactor, is indeed the ideal place to build one.

Do you think that the Dabaa region is the most suitable site to build reactors?

Although the Nuclear Power Plants Authority issued a validity report for the Dabaa region, it did not clarify whether it is the most suitable place. The project's Australian consultants have deemed it suitable, but expressed reservations. These same reservations have already been outlined by Khalid Ouda, a geologist at Assiut University, Egypt, who warned about the region's calcareous soil. This may lead to the formation of underwater caves affecting the construction of the reactor.

I blame the Nuclear Power Plants Authority as they did not prepare adequate studies on possible alternative sites.

Compared with other countries in the region, where does Egypt stand on nuclear energy production?

There are 65 reactors under construction in nearly 20 countries around the world, half of them developing countries. China and India are building 26 reactors; the United Arab Emirates plans to set up four nuclear reactors to generate electricity by 2020. Saudi Arabia plans to build 16 power reactors by 2030 and Jordan has just announced a plan to build reactors to generate electricity and desalinate water. These planned reactors are in addition to the existence of more than 400 reactors around the world.

Amidst all this, Egypt is still waiting and watching, stuck at the same stage since the programme was suspended back in the 1970's.

So is nuclear energy Egypt's only possible response to its increasing energy deficit?

There is no solution but to establish nuclear power plants. They are the most prolific, cleanest and cheapest source of energy after hydropower. Politicians are promising a solution without proper timetables, not realizing that any delay in starting the nuclear programme increases the gasoline and diesel crises in Egypt and leads to economic losses.

We must start public campaigns to support the nuclear programme, to illustrate the importance of the project to the people and decision makers. At the same time, the Nuclear Power Plants Authority should continue to communicate with the people of Dabaa, present investigative studies on the environmental effects and economic impact on the region, as well as complete studies on the possible alternative sites for building the reactors.

There is still a lot of fear on proper handling of nuclear waste and the possibility of radioactive leakage. How will Egypt handle this?

The only waste produced is the spent fuel that is indeed highly radioactive. However, there are several solutions. Iran, for example, exports its spent fuel to Russia for a price. Other countries place it in 100% secure containers for 200 years, or bury it in the desert at 1,000 metres depth.

Some people have concern over the dangers of a meltdown or radioactive leakage due to problems in the past. The Chernobyl reactor, however, was incorrectly designed. Even the Fukushima reactor withstood a massive earthquake scoring 8.9 on the Richter scale with hardly a scratch. The tsunami that followed was the cause of the disaster because it destroyed the electric wiring which, at 7 metres, was not high enough. The reactors that Egypt seeks to build are based on safer, newer technology.

What kind of reactors does Egypt plan to build?

Egypt plans to build four reactors in Dabaa at a 4,000 MW capacity, with the first reactor coming online in 2020. They would be reactors known as pressurized water reactors, which are safer and have an extra cooling circuit. These are third-generation reactors, while the Fukushima reactor was a second-generation reactor or what is known as boiling water reactor.

Just as you are saying Egypt should push ahead with nuclear energy, Germany has announced it will phase out nuclear energy altogether within 11 years. Do you think this is the right decision?

Germany has 17 nuclear reactors. They have reached the phase of nuclear energy saturation and are able to achieve a revival in renewable energies thanks to their strong economy. Germany succeeded in generating 6% of its electricity from wind, the same figure from waste, and 1% from solar energy. Egypt cannot afford to do that yet, so nuclear energy remains the most feasible option to solve the country's energy crisis.

Hani El-Nokrashy

Several scientists contend that nuclear energy is the best solution to Egypt's energy crisis. Do you agree?

Nuclear power is not a solution for the Egyptian electricity supply problem. By 2022, Egypt will need about 50 GW installed capacity of electricity. Currently, the country has a capacity of ~28 GW. According to the Egyptian nuclear programme, the first nuclear power plant will produce 1,000 MW and will be operational in 10 years' time. The next 4 units will each provide 1,000 MW, so the installed nuclear capacity will be 5 GW, just 10% of the expected demand.

So this is not a viable long-term programme. And in view of the fact that Egypt needs to increase its installed capacity 2,000 to 3,000 MW each year, nuclear energy cannot be seen as a short term solution either.

Yet proponents of nuclear energy argue it is among the cheapest and cleanest sources of power, and that it can supply far more energy than renewable sources.

Egypt has an abundance of renewable energy sources and concentrated solar power (CSP) would be very favourable. The costs are actually slightly lower than those of nuclear energy. The foundations of nuclear reactors must be built to withstand earthquakes. This increases the initial construction cost to US$7-8 billion per GW. This is higher than the construction costs of several solar thermal power stations with a thermal storage of the same capacity and performance as nuclear power plants. CSP works day and night and thus can supply reliable electricity on demand, as well as during peak hours in the summer. Once built, they do not need fuel to operate and produce no waste.

Can nuclear waste be handled safely?

Nuclear energy has plenty of radioactive waste produced from the reactors and from scrubbing the power station when it goes out of service. Nuclear power plants have been operating commercially for more than 50 years. No proper solution has been found for disposing of their waste.

For instance, in Germany some waste was stored in the abandoned salt mine Asse II to be kept safe for a million years. However, less than 40 years later investigators found that water is flooding the mine, risking the contamination of the area's groundwater.

So would renewable energy be a more reliable solution for Egypt's increasing power needs?

It will take US$7 billion to build 20 CSP power stations, each producing 50 MW with 16-18 hours storage capacity. It is much easier to get the money from banks in 20 separate packages. They can be built anywhere in the desert near the new settlements, and no river is needed for cooling. If all 20 power stations are of the same design and type, then a lot of parts will be produced in Egypt and they will cost much less.

Over time they will become cheaper because of mass production. CSP power stations built near the sea can produce desalinated water for cities and even for irrigation. Also, wind energy can be very reliable at the coast of the Red Sea, where the winds reach an average speed of 11-12 m/s in summer and 5-6 m/s in winter.

Yusri Abu Shadi is member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, and former head of the Nuclear Engineering Department at the University of Alexandria. He worked for 25 years as a chief inspector in the International Atomic Energy Agency and head of the Department of Safeguards at the Agency until 2009. In this role he visited more than 40 nuclear reactors around the world.

Hani El-Nokrashy is the co-founder of the Desertec Foundation founded in January, 2009. He is also the head of the Egyptian Solar Research Center and a consultant on several topics including electricity generation, desalination and other CSP applications.