In recent years, Russia and China have been facing off to spread their nuclear power dominion to a new, huge, and vastly untapped market: Africa. The two nuclear power giants have been in competition to corner the market, with Russia aiming to grow its position in a sector that China has historically dominated.  Earlier this summer, German media company DW News reported on a new Russian-funded and -controlled nuclear center being developed in Kigali: “The Center of Nuclear Science and Technologies, planned for completion by 2024, will include nuclear research labs as well as a small research reactor with up to 10 MW capacity.” And the Rwandan plant is just the beginning. “Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia have signed similar deals with Rosatom, while countries such as Ghana, Uganda, Sudan, and DRC have less expansive cooperation agreements.”

Now, there is a new forum for nuclear takeover in Africa: Egypt. As reported by AllAfrica this week, “Egypt’s venture into nuclear power has been planned from the top-down, with environmental groups and rights organizations expressing reservations, energy analysts questioning the need for the country’s first nuclear plant, and many details of agreements with Russia remaining murky.” 

While COVID-19 has, not surprisingly, caused delays to the development of nuclear projects in Egypt, local officials recently announced that the construction of the nation’s first nuclear power plant is still set to proceed as planned. The plant will be built at Dabaa. “The professed objective of the power plant is to achieve self-sufficiency in energy amid increasing demand from a growing population (estimated at 100 million people),” reports AllAfrica. “Egypt’s nuclear project has been awarded strategic importance by the government, resulting in it being conceptualized and implemented in a top-down manner. This approach largely excludes the people of Egypt from being stakeholders in their country’s nuclear dream.”

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This project, as is the case of so many others on the continent, is being spearheaded by Russia in conjunction with local Egyptian officials. The deal to develop the inaugural Dabaa nuclear power plant was signed back in 2015, but is finally becoming a reality, and will be the first of many more. “In addition to building four reactors at Dabaa, the Russian state atomic energy corporation (ROSATOM) will supply nuclear fuel for the plant throughout its entire lifetime.”

Russian ROSATOM will be intimately involved in the project long-term, giving Russia the ability to maintain soft power in the area for years to come. “ROSATOM will also be involved in the operation and maintenance of the plant, as well as training of Egyptian personnel during the first 10 years of operation. 

The corporation will also assist Egypt to dispose of spent nuclear fuel,” writes Heba Taha for AllAfrica. “Around 85 percent of the cost of the Dabaa power plant will be financed by a U.S. $25 billion Russian loan. Egypt will begin repaying the loan in October 2029 on a biannual basis over 22 years, with 3 percent interest. The remaining 15 percent of the cost of the power plant will be raised by the Egyptian government, but it is not clear whether this will come from the public or private sector.”

While the construction of the plant is scheduled to proceed as planned, the project has been and remains highly divisive in Egypt. While the country lacks an organized, large-scale anti-nuclear lobby, there is no shortage of smaller groups, such as environmentalist organizations and rights groups, that have expressed reservations if not outright condemnation of the project.

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These reservations, however, are not the typical complaints about nuclear energy production. These local groups are not primarily complaining about radioactive waste or the potential of a nuclear meltdown. The main issue at play here is water. In Egypt, most areas receive less than eighty millimeters of precipitation per year. Water, therefore, is an especially precious commodity. The top complaint, therefore, is about the massive quantities of water needed to keep nuclear reactors cool to avoid meltdown. Any concerns about public health due to radiation and high costs of construction are secondary to the issue of water usage. 

Another common complaint is that nuclear is not really needed in Egypt, where considerable deposits of natural gas have been discovered off the coast – enough to account for an energy surplus. This raises questions about the purpose of the project – is it really to create more and greener energy, or is it ultimately about power relations and geopolitical attachments between the infamously opaque Egyptian Nuclear and Radiological Regulatory Authority and the infamously power-hungry Russian government? 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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