Nuclear power has long been the subject of intense discussion, and ever more so in the wake of meltdowns and accidents. Fears of environmental and health risks have sparked fierce resistance in some quarters against a form of power generation that is cheap, clean and long-lasting after incidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima – often with dramatic results. Shortly after the Fukushima incident, Japan shut down 52 nuclear power plants that accounted for 30% of its total power generation.

Today, although stuttering steps are being taken in countries like the US and South Africa, only France – which derives around 75% of its total electricity supply from nuclear sources – continues to rely heavily on splitting the atom. For Egypt, though, with its mushrooming population and rapid growth in electricity demand, the debate has leaned towards recognising the benefits. With consumption growing by approximately 8% annually in recent years, and load-shedding becoming more common during the hot summer months, the need for an affordable and sustainable form of power generation is clear.

There is still some convincing to do, however. By late July 2012, the Ministry of Electricity had submitted an updated report to help instil new momentum into the nuclear programme, but the residents of the town of El Dabaa, the site selected for the new plant, were gearing up to protest.

LONG HISTORY: Nuclear ambitions in the Arab world’s most populous state date back to 1954, but the problems nuclear power has been associated with elsewhere have often limited the progress of the country’s domestic initiatives.

Egypt currently operates two nuclear research reactors. The first of these arrived in 1961, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was the president and the country was a client state of the Soviet Union. The tiny 2-MW light water research reactor, which now only operates for 20 weeks of the year, remained under Soviet control. By 1968, when Egypt signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it had not yet produced enough material for an atomic weapon, and the nuclear programme was disbanded.

In 1975 a new nuclear energy programme was devised in consultation with the US, led by the Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA). Since 1976 the NPPA has carried out technical studies for atomic projects linked to electricity generation and water desalination. It has provided policymakers with guidelines, and the authority maintains that nuclear energy is a cost-saving measure that will prove environmentally safe in Egypt’s case. The NPPA’s drive to jump-start domestic nuclear generation stalled following the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, but in 1998 Argentinean firm INVAP beat US and German companies to win a tender to install a second, 22-MW light water research reactor in Egypt.

RENEWED EFFORT: In 2007 the country announced a return to efforts at a civilian nuclear programme, once again led by the NPPA, and in 2010 El Dabaa was announced as the site for a plant, a decision ratified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

US-based Bechtel was originally chosen to provide technical help with the renewed programme, but in January 2009 the company retracted its decision to work with the NPPA as a result of a disagreement over terms. Six months later Australia’s WorleyParsons was awarded the consultancy contract for El Dabaa. WorleyParsons had originally been ranked number two out of the seven companies vying for the LE900m ($151m) contract, which involves managing the flow of site studies, technology selection for and design of the reactor, construction management, commissioning and start-up.

WorleyParsons will deliver a project execution plan after the contract’s first phase expires in 2013. Together with the NPPA the company will also outline its plans for radioactive waste management. A tender for construction was scheduled for January 2011, but was put on hold by the political unrest. When the tender was about to be completed in early 2011, the stated target was production of nuclear energy by 2019, and to expand to a total of four reactors in two facilities by 2015, producing 4000 MW. The Korea International Cooperation Agency was enlisted to train local engineers.

REGION-WIDE DRAW: Interest has also been growing in the private sector in recent years. Egypt’s two largest contractors, Orascom Construction Industries and Arab Contractors, have said they were considering forming a joint venture to bid on nuclear projects. The two anticipated increases in demand across the Middle East and North Africa, as several other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have been considering nuclear power programmes.

“We signed a memorandum of understanding with Arab Contractors to look into nuclear projects,’’ said Erika Wakid, investor relations specialist at Orascom Construction. “That was before Fukushima, but we would still be interested in these kinds of projects.’’ Though there is concern about weapons proliferation in a region that has had more than its share of conflict in recent decades, it is clear that for countries with fast-growing populations, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or without significant domestic energy sources – Jordan falls into this category – nuclear energy is an attractive option. The UAE is also considering building a reactor.

URANIUM: There are modest hopes that the country may be able to source some of the necessary fuel for the reactor locally. Although there are no conventional resources of uranium that have been formally announced, there have been discoveries throughout the Western Desert and Sinai, alongside phosphate deposits in the Nile and along the Red Sea. Egypt’s Nuclear Materials Authority estimates that there is between 15,000 and 33,000 tonnes of uranium in domestic deposits that could be used, and for a brief period in the 1980s there was discussion of a commercial mine opening up, although nothing came of it at the time.

OPPOSITION: Nuclear projects often inspire opposition from those who live near the proposed site, and that goes for Egypt as well as many other countries. Residents of El Dabaa have staged several protests, citing health concerns and broken promises in the past – the government had appropriated land for the project, which is envisioned on 55 sq km of land near the town, but had failed to provide adequate compensation. Thousands of locals have staged sit-ins, voicing complaints over the confiscation of land and homes, and at one point the protesters broke into the project site.

However, the Ministry of Electricity’s report made it clear that the new government is intent on going forward with the plans for the plant, and the tender may finally be released over the coming year. According to the report, there are no immediately viable alternative locations to El Dabaa, meaning the government will have to find some way to address these concerns while pushing ahead with the plant.