Egypt and the Nuclear Option

Egypt is now possibly pursuing its own civilian nuclear option, amid fears of a nuclear arms race between Iran and its regional Sunni rivals. Dr. Shaul Shay argues that a success of the negotiations with Iran could resolve one of the most intractable geopolitical problems of the 21st century, but failure might plunge the Middle East into conflict

An undated photo of Egypt's nuclear research center in Inshas (Photo: AP)

As diplomats of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany return to the negotiating table in an attempt to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, Egypt is now possibly pursuing its own civilian nuclear option, amid fears of a nuclear arms race between Iran and its regional Sunni rivals.

Success of the negotiations could resolve one of the most intractable geopolitical problems of the 21st century, but failure might plunge the Middle East into conflict and start a regional nuclear arms race.

Egypt’s 60-year-old nuclear program is already the third largest in the region, after those of Israel and Iran. The Egyptian government started developing the infrastructure for a nuclear power plant in May 2014 in Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast.

In a speech in September 2014, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said that electricity production and distribution were not developed enough to keep up with consumption. The speech was a response to a large-scale power outage in various parts of the country, part of an ongoing power crisis that has seen recurrent power outages nationwide throughout the summer.

The scarcity of water has also become a rising concern. The state’s statistics agency reported in May 2014 that Egyptians have on average access to 663 cubic meters of clean water annually, well below the international water poverty threshold.

Egypt's cabinet announced details of the fees to establish nuclear power plants to generate electricity and distilled water. The details of the costs were announced in the government’s official gazette.

A global tender to international companies for the Dabaa plant is expected before the end of the calendar year ( 2014). It is yet to be determined if the tender will be open to all international companies or will be closed to specific ones. On November 26, 2014, the Middle East news site Al-Monitor reported that Egypt expects to generate $4 billion in grants from interested international companies to finance the project.

During his last visit in Russia , President El -Sisi said that in the field of energy, Egypt is looking forward to building the al-Dabaa [nuclear] reactor with Russian help.

A number of international companies from Canada, China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the US have already expressed interest in bidding for them.

According to Nuclear Affairs and Energy Adviser at the Ministry of Electricity Ibrahim Al-Osery, the project has the potential to provide up to 50% of Egypt’s electric energy capacity. He claimed that implementation delays cost the country approximately $8bn annually, adding that over the past 30 years Egypt has lost approximately $200bn.

The Report of the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Energy

In July 2012, the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Energy published a report that argued for the creation of a nuclear program. The report stated that Egypt’s increasing demand for electricity, requiring an additional 300 megawatts annually, cannot be met under the current system. In addition, the drop in both traditional sources of energy and employment opportunities means that Egypt should pursue the more economically feasible alternative of nuclear energy. The project incorporated specifications following the disaster at the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011.

The report said that the nuclear plant in Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coastline, will be the first of four nuclear power plants around the country. Under the plan, Dabaa will become operational in 2019 and will create jobs, giving the area a needed economic boost. The last nuclear plant would become operational by 2025.

The Dabaa Nuclear Project

The first brick of Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant was laid under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Site development was halted due to disputes with local residents, who accused the state of confiscating their land by force and without proper compensation.

In January 2012, Dabaa locals stormed the construction site, destroying existing infrastructure and refusing to surrender to military police. Low radioactive sources were also looted from the location, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In late 2013, local tribal families from Dabaa and Marsa Matrouh (a sea port 240 kilometers west of Alexandria) relinquished the nuclear construction site to the Egyptian armed forces after months of occupying the controversial area.

The nuclear reactor that will be constructed in Dabaa after the president issues his decision will be a normal pressurized water reactor.

The Motivations and Capabilities

The growing need for energy is not the only motivation behind Egypt’s interest in a nuclear power program. Egypt sees itself as the leader of the Arab world; therefore a decision to pursue nuclear energy serves political purposes domestically as well as internationally. Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear activities could elicit a regional nuclear race, as Tehran’s traditional rivals in the Middle East —Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states — could counter the Iranian threat with nuclear programs of their own.

The Threat of Nuclear Weapon Program

If Egypt were to decide to develop nuclear weapons it would not be starting from zero. Egypt’s nuclear program, which began in 1954, features two research reactors and a hot-cell laboratory, all located at Inshas in the Delta. They are used for peaceful purposes and are under International Atomic Energy Agency – or IAEA – safeguards. Analysts agree that Egypt tried to acquire nuclear weapons back in the 1960s, but ultimately decided not to do so because of political and economic reasons.

Past nuclear endeavors have left Egypt with an experienced group of physicists and engineers and a number of universities capable of training a new generation of nuclear scientists. During the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) in 2004 opened an investigation into irradiation experiments and the unreported import of nuclear materials and in 2007 and 2008 found traces of Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU), all at Inshas. After each, the IAEA issued brief, bland reports, but the last case is apparently still open, while similar traces of HEU found in facilities in Iran provided the first clue that Pakistan had been aiding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Although Egypt signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, it has refused to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which permits spot inspections, as well as treaties banning the possession of chemical and biological weapons.

Despite possessing a relatively advanced capability in nuclear technology, Egypt is many years away from the ability to produce nuclear weapons if it chose to do so.

Summary and Conclusions

A nuclear Iran may significantly threaten regional security by triggering a Middle East nuclear arms race. If Iran acquired nuclear weapons its neighboring countries may feel increasingly vulnerable sparking proliferation in the region, as countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia would dislike Iran’s ability to dominate the Middle East through its nuclear superiority.

Egypt does not currently possess a nuclear energy program, one that could potentially be diverted for weapons purposes. Several factors can be attributed for this reality, including previous leadership priorities, supplier-based constraints, financial difficulties, and safety concerns. Egypt is a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is the leading proponent of establishing a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations at Geneva, Amr Ahmed Ramadan called on September 10, 2014, for an international convention to ban the production of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons. Ramadan made the remarks during the closing session of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), 2014 held in Geneva. Also, Ramadan urged to keep the outer space away from armed conflict, reiterating the importance of giving guarantees by the nuclear States not to threaten other non-nuclear countries. Ramadan expressed disappointment over failure to carry out the results of the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) held on 1995.The review conference endorsed the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process and recognized that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.Thus, it remains to be seen whether Egypt will change the nuclear policy in the future.

President Obama has vowed that he is willing to do whatever it takes, including using military force, if necessary, to keep Tehran from the bomb. If not stopped, a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to regional and international security. Neighbors' fears of Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions and the emergence of new security dilemmas could ignite a nuclear arms race in the region, hence more proliferation. This poses a significant threat to regional security simply because the more countries that acquire nuclear weapons, the greater the risk one may eventually use.