This is not the safe road to Dabaa: On nuclear energy safety procedures and requirements

14 November 2017

The review of contracts for the Dabaa nuclear project is reportedly drawing to a close. These news reports celebrated the impending fulfillment of the “dream” of entering the nuclear age, but an examination of the regulatory structure and nuclear safety measures set up by the government raises profound doubts about this dream, as well as severe concerns about the consequences of this performance.

Nuclear energy differs substantially from all other energy sources in that it is a potential source of massive hazards. Regardless of current differences of opinion about the suitability of nuclear energy in Egypt—whether based on economic considerations, energy independence, or other considerations—there is no disagreement on the need for superior regulatory structures and capacities to ensure the safety of nuclear reactors.

Simply put, nuclear safety means protecting people and the environment from radiation hazards and guaranteeing the safety of utilities and activities that entail radiation hazards. Egyptian law defines nuclear safety as “the provision of proper operating conditions, the prevention of accidents, or the mitigation of their consequences, to protect workers, the public, and the environment from undue radiation hazards.” Because radiation hazards are cross-border threats, there is a global regime for nuclear safety, the cornerstone of which is the safety standards issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These reflect an international consensus of opinion on what constitutes a high level of safety.

International standards recommend that states and governments provide for an institutional and legal structure to implement the requirements of nuclear safety. An independent regulatory body should assume primary responsibility over this structure and enjoy appropriate financial and scientific capacities as well as independent decision-making authority. It is this body which oversees the organizational and regulatory tasks associated with nuclear operations. Such regulatory bodies set conditions for licensing and grant and revoke licenses to nuclear facilities. They are also responsible for inspections and the oversight of facilities and operations and ensuring compliance with standards. In addition, they issue regulations, set safety standards and guidelines, and conduct outreach with the public and media. Regulatory bodies perform functions associated with states of emergency and in contacting international agencies when necessary. They may also monitor radiation levels and conduct research and development in connection with safety, as well as other regulatory tasks.

What is the status of the regulatory body in Egypt?

 Law 7/2010 created the Nuclear and Radiation Regulatory Agency (NRRA) as a body responsible for “all organizational operations and regulatory missions associated with nuclear and radiation activities.” Much evidence points to major deficiencies in the current capacities of the NRRA, which hinder its mission of ensuring the safety of nuclear energy

In fact, however, we know virtually nothing about this agency, which operates in a profoundly opaque way. The public has no information about the institutional structure of the NRRA, the composition of its administrative board, the highest authority within it, staff numbers, or the scientific capacities and expertise at its disposal. Similarly, there are no reports about its oversight activities in the fields of medicine, research, or food, for example, or its budget or programs for training or international cooperation.

The NRRA maintains no publicly accessible website. It is involved in no discernible activity to inform the public of the organizational process of nuclear operations, or involve them in the process, or disseminate a culture of nuclear safety and security, although all of these are tasks required of it by law and regulations. Nor does the NRRA publish quarterly reports for the public on the radiation situation in the Official Gazette, newspapers, and media, as required by law and regulations. And it has not complied with the legal requirement to make accessible and publish the conditions, obligations, standards, and systems related to licensing, including forms and schedules on compulsory technical standards and safety requirements.

The law established the NRRA as an independent body, but many of the safeguards of this independence are non-existent. It has no independent headquarters, but is instead housed within the Atomic Energy Agency, which permits an overlap in the operations of various directorates. The NRRA also suffers from a lack of funding and staffing shortages. In addition, the law does not protect the chair of the agency from arbitrary dismissal or guarantee that the person holding that office has access to the highest levels of state, as recommended by international standards.

The NRRA understandably may not have access to staff experienced in all regulatory tasks, especially for nuclear reactors. It may need to consult local or foreign experts or bodies, regulatory bodies in other nations, or consulting committees for support and advice. But this does not relieve the agency of its core responsibility. The agency must have staff members with the ability to assess such support and advisement. Is this the case?

It is also the NRRA’s responsibility to ensure there is no conflict of interest when availing itself of the expertise of foreign bodies. So, for example, the bodies offering training or consulting should not be the same bodies implementing the project. The Ministry of Electricity, as the body implementing the Dabaa project, has already contracted with the international firm WorleyParsons for consulting and technical services for the Dabaa nuclear plant. Under the terms of the contract, the company will conduct a technical assessment, prepare studies, assess and review specifications, and conduct operation tests. The NRRA must ensure there is no conflict of interest particularly in this case considering the lack of transparency in such matters. Has it done so?

The magnitude of the inadequacies of the organizational and regulatory bodies in Egypt is starkly demonstrated by a comparison between the NRRA and, for example, the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation. That comparison reveals a broad degree of transparency in the information provided by the UAE body about its organizational structure, local and foreign staff, oversight and inspection reports, training programs, and guidelines, standard practices, and education on nuclear safety and security, as well as extensive international cooperation with global agencies, international and bilateral agreements, and cooperation with regulatory agencies in other countries. Despite this, decision makers in nuclear matters have apparently not prioritized adherence to international recommendations and standards. Instead, they are enthusiastically rushing to complete construction and begin implementation instead of or prior to, or even parallel with, completing the necessary organizational and regulatory capacity building.

These capacities must be built up before plowing ahead with the construction of nuclear reactors. When it comes to nuclear issues, this is the kind of performance that can have grave repercussions.

This Article has been published vis el Shrouqe news website in Arbic in 31st October 2017 and translated by EIPR