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Thursday, June 16, 2011     FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

Energy debate in ... Egypt: Nuclear vs solar

CAIRO — Egypt has been quietly debating its nuclear energy program.


Leading analysts have been conducting a debate on the feasibility of an Egyptian nuclear energy program. The debate has pitted government supporters of a major nuclear drive against environmentalists who argue that Egypt would be better served by a solar energy program.

"It is no exaggeration to talk about the feasibility of a solar energy option," Suheir Mansour, a leading Egyptian environmentalist, said.

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On June 9, Cairo hosted a seminar that marked a rare discussion of Egypt's nuclear energy program. The seminar took place amid plans by the new military regime to accelerate the acquisition of up to 11 nuclear power plants.

Unlike other government departments, the Electricity Ministry has remained headed by the same minister and senior officials from the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Earlier this month, an Egyptian newspaper published a memorandum from a government nuclear employee who reported a recent radiation leak from the Anshas nuclear reactor, located on the outskirts of Cairo.

"The fact that the reactor was by mere chance not operated the next day saved the area from environmental disaster," read the note to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces by Samir Mekheimar, a former director at the Nuclear Research Center.

The June 9 seminar, which did not include government representatives, did not focus on the Anshas leak. Instead, analysts said Egypt could generate more power through solar energy than through a multi-billion-dollar nuclear program. Speakers referred to the European Union, members of which were abandoning nuclear reactors in wake of the recent disaster in Japan.

Ms. Mansour said Egypt should participate in an EU-supported program designed to form a network of solar stations. Under the German-sponsored effort, called Desertec, the Middle East would produce energy through solar farms and supply the power to Europe as well.

"This was established to create solar power stations and wind farms for power generation in the Middle East, supplying Europe with electricity generated from the Middle East and transmitted through cables in the Mediterranean," Ms. Mansour said.

Other speakers at the seminar, titled "The Future of Solar Energy in Egypt," warned that a network of nuclear power stations would endanger the country. They said nuclear energy would end up costing much more than solar or wind power.

The analysts said Egypt could exploit winds that blow along the Gulf of Suez to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity. Egypt's nuclear program has envisioned the acquisition of 1,000 megawatt reactors.

Another proposal was that Egypt generate electricity from algae. Ms. Suheir said Egypt had sufficient space and sea access to make this option feasible.

Mussa Naji, another environmentalist, said Egypt marked one of the richest countries in solar and wind energy potential. Naji told the seminar that unlike nuclear power, Egypt could easily import technology for solar and wind generators.

"There would be no difficulty to start training young people in renewable energy technology," Naji said. "All we need is political will."

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