Russia-Egypt Nuclear Deal is Milestone but Security Concerns Remain

Egypt is a major player in the Middle East and Russia is not the only country willing to bring its nuclear technology to the Egyptian market. On Nov. 19, Russia and Egypt signed an intergovernmental agreement to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant using Russian technology. 

It is not surprising that Egypt wants to develop nuclear power. It was one of the first developing countries to address the issue almost 60 years ago, starting with related institutions, training personnel and drafting nuclear power programs. Egypt’s human potential in the nuclear sphere is one of the best in the Middle East (excluding Israel) in terms of experts, personnel, internal legislation and experience. It is comparable to that of Iran.

In 2010, Egypt was prepared to announce a new tender to build a nuclear power plant. The results of previous tenders have not been implemented for various reasons. But the nuclear projects were suspended due to internal political and socioeconomic shifts and the change of government.

Egypt resumed considering a nuclear power plant project in 2014. It wanted to build up to 10 power units, the first of which would come on stream in 2025. However, there are several obstacles to the rapid implementation of these projects.

The biggest problem concerns security, which was inadequate even before the recent terrorist attack on board a Russian flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg. The A321 plane crash was a terrible confirmation of the many symptoms of the security disease in Egypt.

The second problem is the shortage of investment funds. Egypt’s first nuclear power plant will be built at el-Dabaa in the north of the country under the 2+2 scheme, under which Russia will sign a deal to build two power units with the possibility of building two more. Considering the economic challenges and prohibitive cost of the first two power units — $10 billion — Egypt cannot build the plant without assistance as did Iran and Saudi Arabia. It will have to borrow from foreign sources.

The third unresolved issue concerns the accident at the Japanese Fukushima nuclear plant, after which Egyptians, in particular residents of el-Dabaa, which was chosen as the site for the nuclear plant over 30 years ago, expressed concerns about nuclear safety. The Egyptian government cannot disregard them. It will need to work more closely with the public, informing them about nuclear power generation plans and explaining why Russian reactors are considered safe. But this will take time.

In other words, although Egypt has expressed its interest in building a nuclear power plant, there are obstacles precluding the project’s rapid implementation.

Therefore, the Nov. 19 agreement can be only implemented in the medium term. Building a nuclear facility amid security challenges would be unwise, as I see it. The project will have to be postponed for two or three years, and only if Egypt settles the security issue by that time. If it fails, the project will be put off for a longer period.

Considering the international aspect of the deal, we should remember that Egypt is a major player in the Middle East and Russia is not the only country willing to bring its nuclear technology to the Egyptian market. Additionally, there are no formal reasons for other countries to try to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant in Egypt using Russian technology. There are no legal obstacles to the project either, as Egypt honors its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the safeguard protocols of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.