by Dr. Shaul Shay
Russia has recently signed an agreement to finance and build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Can Egypt’s desire for a nuclear program be seen as part of the greater Sunni reaction to Iran’s program and what they fear will be a Shia nuclear bomb? Dr. Shaul Shay on the significant step in the fast-growing strategic alliance between Egypt and Russia
Russia signed an agreement, on November 19, 2015, to finance and build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, in a ceremony attended by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. In addition, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Russian and Egyptian regulators "in order to facilitate further development of the nuclear infrastructure" required for the project.
The documents specified matters including nuclear fuel supply for the planned reactors, as well as responsibilities concerning their operation, maintenance and repair. The intergovernmental agreement also addresses questions concerning the management of used nuclear fuel, personnel training, and support to Egypt in its development of nuclear standards and regulations.
In a televised speech following the signature of the deal, the Egyptian president said that the cost of the station would be covered by a loan that will last for 35 years through the period of the production of electricity from the Dabaa station. The Egyptian president also made clear that Egypt is committed to the international conventions prohibiting proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear plants. El-Sisi stressed that the project is "for peaceful purposes" and highlighted that Egypt has always had the "dream of a peaceful nuclear program."
"This project marks the first step towards our future plans that will entitle us to cooperate more in the nuclear industry with other countries," El-Sisi said.
El-Sisi highlighted that both sides agreed on the timing of the deal to send a message of "hope" following the terrorist incident that last month and that the signing of such a project following the terrorism incident reveals the strong ties between Cairo and Moscow.
Sergei Kirienko, director general of Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom, said the agreement is for the construction and operation of four 1,200 MW reactors. "The plant will make Egypt the regional leader in the field of nuclear technologies and the only country in the region that will have a generation 3+ plant," he added.
Kirienko said that the plant in Dabaa, "will be the largest joint project between Russia and Egypt since the Aswan Dam was set up. This is truly a new page in the history of bilateral intergovernmental relations."
The planned plant would be located at an existing nuclear site in Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast, west of Alexandria. The agreement envisages a power plant with four reactors producing 1,200 megawatts each. Along with the reactors, the plant will also have desalination capacities. The project will be completed in 2022.
Following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian-Russian relations have been strengthened in terms of diplomatic, economic and military cooperation and the nuclear deal is a part of the strategic cooperation between the countries.
Ambassador Mohamed Shaker, chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said that Egypt did not wait for launching bids, but gave the project to Russia with "direct order" just to save time. Egypt chose Russia as the latter produces cheaper nuclear reactors with good quality.
In February 2015, 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.
The Motivations and Capabilities
Egypt has experienced periods of electricity shortages in recent years, at times causing frequent blackouts but 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.
Since 1974, Egypt has taken the initiative of proposing to render the Middle East nuclear-weapons free zone, calling all countries in the region without exception to join the NPT. In April 1990, Egypt took the initiative to render the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference established a multinational mechanism to work on making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone. This mechanism, however, has stalled as a result of the Israeli position. In April 1996, Egypt hosted the conference for signing the declaration on rendering Africa a nuclear-weapons free zone.
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.
Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations at Geneva, Amr Ahmed Ramadan called on September 10, 2014, 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 urged to keep the outer space away from armed conflict, reiterating the importance of giving guarantees by the nuclear States not to threaten other non-nuclear countries.
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 on 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
Egypt was cooperative with the IAEA during the investigation and since then, the IAEA has not had any noted issues with Egypt.
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 and conclusions
Russia is one of the main non-Arab supporters of Sisi’s government and was among the first countries to endorse Sisi’s presidential bid in 2014. Dr. Mohammed Badri Egypt's ambassador to Russia said in October 2015, that bilateral relations between both countries have entered the stage of strategic partnership by virtue of the strong relations between both countries' leaders, indicating that these relations are growing in various fields. He pointed out that the growth of these relations serves the interests of both countries and stability in the Middle East, especially with the presence of a common vision on the need to fight terrorism.
The nuclear deal is a significant step in the fast-growing strategic alliance between Egypt and Russia. Egypt and Russia have never been that close since the era of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, referring to the level of economic and military cooperation, which culminated in arm deals and naval maneuvers codenamed “Friendship Bridge 2015.”
Israel has long argued that a nuclear Iran would set off a regional nuclear race, as Tehran's traditional rivals in the Middle East —Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states — would quickly move to respond to the Iranian nuclear program challenge.
Egypt’s desire for a nuclear program could also be seen as part of the greater 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. Thus, it remains to be seen whether Egypt will change the nuclear policy in the future.
Dr. Shaul Shay
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