Egypt's first nuclear power plant under way as Russia's Rosatom breaks ground

Ground broken at site five years after El Sisi and Putin signed agreement

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, back, right, and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, back left, applaud as Egypt's electricity and renewable energy minister, Mohamed Shaker, shakes hands with Alexei Likkhachev, the director general of Russia's Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, after signing a bilateral agreement in Cairo in 2017. AFP
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Russia's state-owned nuclear energy corporation has finally broken ground on its $30 billion nuclear power station in the desert on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline.

Rosatom on Wednesday laid the concrete foundations for the Al Dabaa nuclear power plant, which is to be Egypt’s first.

The complex is a centrepiece in Cairo’s growing ties with Moscow, which entails multibillion-dollar arms purchases, Russian investment, frequent joint war games and the import of huge amounts of Russian wheat.

The project signals Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s readiness to maintain and expand ties with Russia, despite the host of sanctions imposed by Cairo’s western friends and backers, led by the US, against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

It also fits in with Egypt’s ambitious programme to diversify its energy sources, investing heavily in renewable and clean energy as it prepares to host the next global conference on climate change, Cop27, in November.

News of Egypt’s wish to have Russia build its first nuclear power station broke in 2015.

Two years later, Mr El Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin formally signed an agreement on the construction of the four-reactor, 4,800-megawatt plant.

The project had remained largely dormant for seven years until late last month, when Rosatom said it had received permission from the Egyptian regulator to start building the first power unit out of the planned four, a 1,200-megawatt unit which will be operational in 2026.

Seeking to reassure local residents and the Mediterranean's North Coast holidaymakers, officials have spoken at length about the safety and security of the plant.

“It will have the highest standards of reactors’ safety,” said Ayman Hamza, the Electricity Ministry spokesman.

“The plant will withstand earthquakes, storms, floods, snowfall and outside explosions. Its three shields will protect it against the crash of a heavy aircraft."

The growing Egypt-Russia ties recall the 1950s and 1960s when the Arab nation embraced socialism and forged a close bond with the Soviet Union.

That Cold War-era bond was defined by a milestone Soviet arms deal in the 1950s, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt by Russian engineers, a giant steel complex south of Cairo and a small army of military advisers stationed in Egypt after its defeat by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Relations with Russia cooled off under the rule of Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) when Egypt became a close US ally. Mr El Sisi, in office since 2014, has maintained Cairo’s close relations with Washington, but has simultaneously moved to take Egypt closer to Moscow.

Last November, Egypt signed a long-term agreement with the Czech UJV Rez Research and Development company to consult on the project, said Sami Shaaban, chairman of the Egyptian Nuclear and Radiology Regulatory Authority.

The start of work on Wednesday was marked by a celebration attended by Egyptian Electricity Minister Mohammed Shaker and Rosatom chief executive Alexey Likhachev at the site, 300 kilometres north-west of Cairo.

For years, all that could be seen of the site of the nuclear power plant was a three-metre-high wall stretching for more than 10 kilometres parallel to the coast — but no sign of activity.

New signs of life

On Wednesday, the site, part of which now sits alongside a new six-lane motorway, showed renewed signs of life, with Egypt’s red, white and black flags fluttering from poles as SUVs and limousines darted in and out of the gate. An armoured vehicle was stationed by the gate.

Huge lorries were parked outside, apparently waiting for clearance to enter. White-and-blue pre-fab offices sprang up seemingly overnight, sitting outside and inside the gate.

Elsewhere along the off-white wall, construction was under way for concrete watchtowers at 100-metre gaps close to the gate.

The area is inhabited by a farming community of about 50,000 living in the ramshackle town of Al Dabaa.

It interrupts a chain of high-end seaside compounds frequented mostly by Egypt’s rich. It is about 40 kilometres west of New Alamein, a new coastal city defined by skyscrapers, which serves as the government’s summer seat and includes a presidential residence.

Residents have been compensated for the land on which the nuclear power plant will stand. New homes were built for them by the armed forces at the cost of 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($52,750). A technical school in the town focusing on nuclear energy is already open.

Updated: July 21, 2022, 4:53 AM