Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced Monday that his nation, which lacks the oil reserves of some of its Middle East neighbors, would build several nuclear power plants to meet rising energy demands in coming decades.
The statement, made in a nationally televised address, seemed to have twin purposes: overhaul an energy policy to keep pace with economic growth, and support his son Gamal, who has emphasized the need for nuclear power and is seen by many analysts as a front-runner to succeed the 79-year-old president.
“We believe that energy security is a major part of building the future of this country and an integral part of Egypt’s national security system,” Mubarak said at an electrical power plant under construction outside Cairo. “We have to face the fact that oil and gas are not renewable energy sources. And we also have to admit that we are facing a great challenge to meet increasing consumption.”
The president said the program would be transparent and seek the backing and help of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, and countries such as the U.S., which gives Cairo nearly $2 billion annually in military and economic aid.
Egypt’s nuclear announcement comes as Washington has imposed new economic sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, which the Bush administration says is seeking atomic weapons. Tehran says its program is for civilian purposes.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they had no objection to the Egyptian plans, provided Cairo followed the rules of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and procedures of the IAEA that are designed to limit countries to peaceful uses of atomic power.
“Any country that fulfills its obligations under the NPT and follows proper IAEA safeguards will have a program that is perfectly acceptable to us,” said Tom Casey, deputy State Department spokesman. “They’re fully within their rights to go that way.”
Egypt is believed to be 10 years away from putting a reactor online. The country, which abandoned its atomic aspirations after the radiation leak at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, has yet to enrich uranium, a key component of a nuclear program.
The Egyptian economy has been growing between 5% and 7% annually in recent years. The government is reforming economic regulations in an effort to spur more foreign investment and be more competitive in a region facing immense poverty balanced against the skyscrapers and success of countries such as the United Arab Emirates. Energy officials estimate that at current production rates, Egypt’s oil and gas reserves will dwindle in less than 50 years.
Mubarak’s remarks came days before the main political convention for his ruling National Democratic Party. In 2006, the president’s son, a businessman, addressed the conference and called for reviving the country’s nuclear energy policy. Gamal Mubarak, who has frequently appeared in the media emphasizing economic development, is widely seen as being groomed for president -- a prospect he and his father deny.
“Mubarak’s statement pertaining to the peaceful use of nuclear power is an attempt to add support and credibility to the discourse of his son,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Fattah noted, however, that presidential elections don’t take place until 2011, adding: “The matter is still obscure and seems very complex.”
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.