By Khaled Diab
Friday 10 June 2016
Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima reminds us of the inherent danger of nuclear weapons. Despite being an avid supporter of scientific and technological progress, I often wonder whether humanity had learnt to split the atom too soon, unleashing forces far beyond our capacity to contain and control.
Many will counter that the peaceful use of nuclear power has done humanity a great deal of good. While numerous applications of nuclear technology, such as in medicine, deliver huge benefits and save lives, nuclear energy is a different matter. Deriving energy from nuclear power is expensive, produces the most toxic waste imaginable and is extremely dangerous, as the Fukushima catastrophe and other disasters demonstrate.
Despite this, the Middle East finds itself at a nuclear crossroads, with governments across the region launching or reviving plans to construct nuclear reactors.
The latest development in this regard was the recent announcement that Russia will lend Egypt $25 billion to finance and operate a nuclear power plant which will be built by Russia’s state-owned nuclear giant Rosatom. The Russian tender Egypt accepted was for the construction of a station with a capacity of 4,800 megawatts, at an estimated cost of $10 billion.
“This was a long dream for Egypt, to have a peaceful nuclear programme to produce electricity,” President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said late last year.
And this dream dates back to the very dawn of the nuclear age, when then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser launched Egypt’s nuclear programme in 1954 and the first Soviet-built research reactor came online in 1961. Since then, Egypt’s nuclear ambitions have stalled for a number of political, economic and technological reasons.
The revival of Egypt’s civilian nuclear programme has stirred a lot of debate and controversy, both in the media and in private – as I discovered during a long impromptu debate at a Cairo restaurant recently.
Those who support the initiative believe it present a “realistic” solution to the country’s energy crisis, enhances its energy security, and bring us into the elite club of nuclear nations.
Like many experts, I have numerous doubts and misgivings about these claims. On the environmental level, investing in nuclear energy could have potentially catastrophic consequences.
In addition to the risks of an Egyptian Chernobyl or Fukushima, there are the everyday dangers of radioactive leaks and seepage, not to mention the safe disposal of nuclear waste, which is likely to outlive humanity.
If the “safe” disposal of nuclear waste in technologically advanced and wealthy Germany has proven to be extremely unsafe and dangerous, what chance does poor, inexperienced Egypt stand in averting a future radioactive crisis? Then, there are the more subtle environmental costs. Nuclear power plants are extremely thirsty beasts – consuming the equivalent of a major metropolis – and Egypt suffers serious “water poverty”, by the government’s own admission.
Weighing in on the debate, the renowned Egyptian-American NASA space scientist Farouk el-Baz called Egypt’s nuclear plan “an unstudied political decision” motivated by the desire to catch up with Iran which “spurred Arab countries to enter the nuclear field”.
But if anything, the folly of Iran’s nuclear programme should deter Egypt and the other Arab countries from pursuing nuclear energy, for geo-strategic, economic and social reasons.
Iran’s Bushehr I reactor, which reportedly cost $11 billion to build, provides less than 2% of the country’s electricity requirements, while sanctions may have cost the Islamic Republic as much as $500 billion in lost oil revenue, blocked foreign investments and other opportunity costs, experts estimate. In contrast, supplying all Iran’s electricity needs from solar power would cost a mere $96 billion, according to one estimate.
While Egypt’s non-pariah status will probably mean that its programme will be cheaper, nuclear power is still extremely expensive, especially when compared with solar energy in “sunbelt” regions like the Middle East.
Egyptian solar energy expert Sherife Abdelmessih estimates that nuclear power plants are four times as expensive to construct as solar ones per unit of energy. In addition, he expects that Egypt will pay about $150 per MWh for the power generated by the new nuclear power plant, while the equivalent price for Egyptian wind farms is $45 per MWh.
There are also persuasive geostrategic reasons for Egypt and other Arab countries not to invest in nuclear energy. While proponents believe it will enhance our energy security, it will actually diminish it.
No Arab country possesses the scientific and technological know-how to build their own nuclear facilities and to conduct the extremely costly research required to advance knowledge in this highly developed field, let alone to catch up with the established nuclear powers. This will make Arab civilian nuclear programmes highly dependent on foreign technology and expertise.
In addition, the fuel required to run the power plants will have to be imported, making the country vulnerable to supply disruptions, which could be exploited for political arm-twisting.
In contrast, Egypt, and the wider region, is blessed with abundant sun and wind resources, and the renewable energy sector is still young enough for Egypt to become a major player and innovator in it.
Egypt recognises this opportunity and seeks to extract 20% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2022, but it is not doing enough and this is not enough.
Unlike nuclear power, renewable energy has the potential to create an enormous number of jobs and abundant business opportunities, including start-ups. In addition, it is scalable, meaning that energy can be consumed close to where it is produced, and it paves the way to distributed energy generation, where each building or home can potentially produce its own power and sell its excess supply into the national grid.
Renewable energy technologies are also diverse. For example, a relatively small investment in solar boilers can save Egypt the huge amounts of electricity used to heat water. Moreover, in addition to being cheaper than photovoltaic technology, concentrated solar power, rather than being a water-guzzler, can actually be used to desalinate water, alongside producing electricity.
I cannot help thinking that the $25 billion Egypt is spending on a single nuclear power plant would not have been better invested in pursuing these alternative energy options. In fact, for the entire region, nuclear energy is pure folly and the only sunny future is in renewables.
This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 June 2016.