CAIRO // As Egypt's government prepares to finalise plans for the country's first nuclear power plant by the end of this year, opposition from a prominent tourism developer risks scuttling the project. But if the proposed site at Al Dabaa, a remote strip of desert coast about 140km west of Alexandria, does not receive final approval by the end of this year as planned, it could spell the end of Egypt's nascent civil nuclear energy plans and the beginning of an energy crisis, said Mohamed Mounir Megahed, the vice chairman for the Nuclear Power Plants Authority.
"Those people who would [oppose] Al Dabaa are occupied by greed. There is no other reason," said Mr Megahed. "We reached this situation after thorough investigation and after extensive work and a lot of money. If we give this away, we will liquidate the nuclear power programme. Period." Ibrahim Kamel, the chairman of Kato Investment company and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) General Secretariat, has emerged as the leading opponent to the project's proposed location on the Mediterranean Coast. Such a facility would mar the natural beauty of one of Egypt's most precious tourist attractions, he said. Mr Kamel's opposition to the proposed site at Al Dabaa has outraged parliamentarians and energy planners, who said he is putting personal profits ahead of Egypt's national energy priorities.
Mr Kamel already owns a private airport and a hotel about two kilometres from the reactor's proposed location, and he is planning to build another five hotels in the project's vicinity. "What I am questioning is the choice of the site ... Our North Coast is a gift of God that was given to Egypt ... we have some wonderful beaches, we have excellent weather all year round, and it is only a short distance away from Europe," said Mr Kamel, who added that Egypt could attract far more tourists if the Mediterranean coast were properly developed. "In my own judgement, we should focus on creating the best - and here I mean the best - facilities for tourism on our north shore."
But Mr Kamel's objections come at a critical moment. Energy planners worry that the demands of Egypt's rising population and diminishing fuel resources will collide within the next 10 to 30 years. Egypt's estimated 80 million people consumed 85.8 million megawatt hours of electricity in the 2004-2005 fiscal year, marking a 33 per cent increase from the 64.6 million MW/h they consumed in 2000-2001, according to official government statistics.
About 75 per cent of that electricity came from natural gas in 2005, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That resource was largely undeveloped until the government opened it to foreign investors in the late 1990s, but it is expected to become entirely depleted within the next 30 years. Egypt's oil reserves - another significant source of energy - may disappear within 15 years. "We have abundant resources, more or less, but within 10 to 30 years, all of these resources will be finished. What can we do?" said Yassin Ibrahim, the executive chairman of the Nuclear Power Plants Authority.
The answer, according to Egypt's ruling party, is to go nuclear. In September 2006, Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and the secretary of the NDP's Policies Committee, announced that the government will take old nuclear plans dating back to the 1980s off the shelf. Those plans - which had already pinpointed the Al Dabaa site as the best possible location for a nuclear facility - had been shelved in 1986 following the deadly Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in the Soviet Union. Added to the new initiative was a commitment that Egypt would generate 20 per cent of its electricity through renewable energy sources such as nuclear, wind and water power by 2020.
The fact that Al Dabaa has already survived the lengthy, expensive review process required to build a nuclear power plant makes its candidacy quite handy. Choosing and purchasing a different site would require years of additional costs and delays - circumstances that Mr Megahed said would effectively kill the programme. The Egyptian government has hired an international consulting firm to review the Al Dabaa site's suitability based on the latest standards. The consulting firm expects to file a thorough report by the end of this year.
But for Mr Kamel, who acknowledges that he is not an expert on nuclear energy, the Al Dabaa site could present a danger for Cairo and Alexandria, which he says are downwind of the proposed location. The government is in the process of examining five other sites for future nuclear power plants after Al Dabaa, said Mr Kamel. Any of those sites could serve as a potential alternative. "Whatever the government's decision will be on this, I will support it," said Mr Kamel, who rejected the implications of nuclear officials and members of parliament that his opposition stems from personal greed.
"As a citizen, I insist on making the point loud and clear that the North Coast is a gold-mine for the country and it should be developed." But as Egypt stares at a darker future and plans for Al Dabaa proceed apace, Mr Kamel may be finding fewer friends in powerful places. The chairman of the energy committee in the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament, has loudly proclaimed that the project will continue above the businessman's objections, and officials at Egypt's Nuclear Power Plants Authority said they do not expect Mr Kamel to successfully halt more than three decades of careful planning.
"This is just talking. Our steps will move directly without any problems," said Aktham Abou El Ela, a spokesman for the Ministry of Electricity and Energy. "Ninety-nine per cent of parliament wants Al Dabaa as a nuclear site." firstname.lastname@example.org