Egypt sets sights on nuclear power for its energy needs

Egypt is counting on nuclear energy to help meet its energy needs in the 1990 s.

In December it signed an agreement for cooperation on nuclear energy with the United States. Egypt has already made agreements with Britain, France, and West Germany, and has ratified the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which a country agrees not to acquire or make atomic bombs and allows international inspection of nuclear power plants.

Egypt's first reactor - a small 2 megawatt research reactor some 18 miles east of Cairo - was provided by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. This reactor has produced radioactive isotopes for medical and other research, with a four-year break after the 1967 war, when the Egyptians removed the fuel in case the reactor was bombed. The research center has trained personnel from all over the Arab world in peaceful uses of radiation and radioactivity.

But Egypt has not built any nuclear power stations. The high dam at Aswan produces 2,000 megawatts of electricity, while natural gas from Red Sea oil wells produces most of the rest of the nation's needs.

Energy consumption in Egypt has risen at over 11 percent per year and doubles every five years. This expansion rate is higher than in the United States - even during the postwar period. For the next five years this need will be met by using natural gas, which might otherwise be flared at the oil wells. In five years, shortages of natural gas are predicted.

The alternatives are oil, coal, nuclear power or some combination of wind, solar, and aggressive fuel-efficiency programs. Although Egypt is now an oil exporter, it can sell this oil at the market price of $32 per barrel and can produce a comparable amount of nuclear energy at a cost of about $12. The government proposes to spend the capital necessary to avoid having to use this oil for electricity generation.

An American advisory team, sent during the Carter administration, was instructed to avoid recommending nuclear power but found that the alternatives were problematic. Egypt has little coal and would have to import it from Australia, which would be expensive. Burning coal would also increase Cairo's air pollution. Wind power can be exploited on the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, where the winds are steady. But this needs massive organization to deploy the thousands of windmills and organization is what Egypt lacks. A factory making windmills closed down a few years ago for lack of customers.

The present plan is to have 10 large, 1,100 megawatt nuclear reactors on three sites by the turn of the century. The first site was originally going to be at Sidi Kreir, 18 miles west of Alexandria, but after the accident at Three Mile Island the governor of Alexandria requested that the Cabinet choose a site farther away, at Dabaa on the Mediterranean Sea. This is far from population centers, but a small town of a few thousand people will have to be built to house the staff and associated services.

The government has established a nuclear power generating authority which reports to the minister of electricity as well as to the existing Atomic Energy Authority.

The first power plants will be ordered from overseas as turnkey projects; it is likely that a pressurized water reactor will be selected. Bids are expected from France, West Germany and the US. Observers say the choice of supplier and contract negotiation is expected to take two years, actual construction eight years. Completion is targeted for 1992.

Though this is 10 years away, the first operating staff has been selected and training has begun. By choosing only well-trained graduate engineers, Egypt hopes to have high safety and reliability and avoid the problems that occurred at Three Mile Island.

More efficient electricity use could avoid the need for increased capacity. At the present time electricity for industrial use costs less than 1 cent per kilowatt hour, much less for the Aswan aluminum plant and the nitrogen plants. This is also less than the marginal cost of producing electricity from nuclear power. It is unclear whether this is a subsidy, or whether the existing generation is cheap. In either case, an increase in price would encourage efficient use. But it would also restrict expansion of the economy and at this stage in their development Egypt is reluctant to raise the price.

A more serious question is whether Egypt will avoid having to pay excessive prices for its power stations. The price estimates for installation in Iran, Philippines and Brazil are now over $3,000 per kilowatt, compared to $1,200 for recently completed plants in the US, $1,000 in France where delays are fewer, and $800 in India where new plants are domestically made. The Egyptians are well aware of this problem and are hiring engineers early.

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