Egypt remains poised to build its first nuclear power plant, originally approved under the leadership of ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's electricity minister said in March 2011, that the country would go ahead with the tender for the plant's construction after the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But local opposition remains fierce, with demonstrations, clashes with military police and a site occupation.
Egypt has an ambitious nuclear power program already for decades. In November 1975, a year after a nuclear agreement between Egypt and Soviet Union, the U.S. Ford administration promised to construct two reactors. Discussions on the deal were started when president Nixon visited the country in 1974. But due to growing opposition in Congress in the following years especially regarding safeguards and the position of Israel, the deal never materialised.
On July 8, 1978, then–president Anwar Sadat proudly announced a deal with Austria to store nuclear it's waste in Egypt, but Austria decided shortly after to never commission their Zwentendorf nuclear power plant after a referendum. On February 16, 1981, Egypt ratified the Nonproliferation Treaty and in the same week France made a bid for the construction of two pressurised water reactors, including the supply of fuel and French technical assistance. Feasibility studies were conducted for the El Dabaa site by the French company Sofratom.
But the program was frozen after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine.
Now, after years of stop-start efforts, Egypt’s nuclear-energy ambitions are once again in flux. Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had pushed hard in recent years to reinvigorate the country’s nuclear-power ambitions,
On August 25, 2010, Mubarak made a final decision on the selection of Dabaa (nearly 350km north of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast) as the site of Egypt's first nuclear reactor. The Supreme Council of Nuclear Energy has been restructured in order for Mubarak to head it. The Dabaa plant will be followed by three other reactors, tentatively scheduled to start production in 2025. The first plant was scheduled to start producing electricity in 2017, but the new government has not made any statements about its plans for the plant since construction was suspended.
Protests at El Dabaa
On January 13, about 500 residents rallied, demanding that construction on the plant be halted. They stormed the Dabaa proposed nuclear site, destroying many buildings and staging a sit-in. The protestors, who, according to some reports, exchanged gunfire with soldiers, claim that the plant development project has usurped their land. The clashes left 41 people injured, including 29 soldiers, according to state-run newspaper Al-Ahram. Employees have refused to return to the plant until security is re-established.
According to Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper the meteorological station, ground water station and many of the offices had been attacked and it says looters made off with computers, monitoring devices for earthquakes, transformers, cables and furniture. Engineers from the country’s Atomic Energy Authority subsequently began to dismantle and remove the remaining equipment, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm.
On Saturday, January 14, following the clashes with military police on Friday, residents of Dabaa staged an occupation, called a 'sit-in', of the site. In the days following the occupation the northern command military leadership met with officials from the Dabaa nuclear site. The Nuclear Stations Authority has been blamed for failing to secure the site and for not dismantling radioactive equipment after the site was stormed, putting inhabitants of the surrounding area at risk. Mohi al-Essawy of the National Center for Nuclear Safety explained that it is the responsibility of the Nuclear Stations Authority and not the Nuclear Safety Authority to secure the site.
On January 19, protesters said they would continue their sit-in and asserted that the government would not be able to force them out. They have already built 50 houses on the site, changed its name to New Dabaa and decided to move the cattle market there. They also said they would give 1,000 square meters for free to young people who cannot afford a place to live. They rejected the option of negotiations to bring an end to their sit-in.
Taha Mohamed Al-Sayed, governor of Matrouh, had held an urgent meeting with protestors' representatives, calling on them to exercise self-restraint. The governor was quoted as telling the protestors that the army will not attack them. Al-Sayed ordered police to secure the plant's gates.
On the first days of the January protests, while hundreds of protestors surrounded El Dabaa, someone managed to sneak in and steal some of its radioactive material. One safe containing radioactive material was seized while another was broken open and some of its contents removed, according to Khaleej Times and confirmed by the IAEA. The government has alerted security officials to the theft and a search party is underway.
Sources: Financial Times, 4 August 1976 / Vrij Nederland, 5 August 1978 / Egypt's nuclear program, Center for Development Policy, March 1982 / Al-Masry Al-Youm, 17 January / Nature, 20 January 2012 / Egypt Independent, 14, 17, 20 & 22 January 2012