Egypt: Sameera Moussa’s dream of nuclear energy birthed Dabaa

By Mourad R. Kamel
Posted on Tuesday, 7 June 2022 14:18

Egypt's Sameera Moussa (wikipedia)
Egypt's Sameera Moussa (wikipedia)

Can nuclear energy bring peace? Egypt’s first female nuclear and medical physicist Sameera Moussa believed so. Her research into nuclear energy brought forward the idea to Cairo, which has at long last established its first power plant.

Egypt will be hosting this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in November. As a country with over 100 million people, it is constantly looking for ways to secure energy sources as it tries to wean itself off fuel sources, in light of the Ukraine war and in trying to emphasise more renewable ones.

Sameera Moussa’s nuclear dream for peace

The establishment of the Al-Dabaa nuclear power plant is an embodiment of the long-term dream of the Egyptian people about peaceful nuclear energy” said Amjad al-Wakeel, the head of Egypt’s Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA) as he accompanied the Russian delegation to the plant’s construction site.

The idea for nuclear energy in Egypt is not new. It came from Sameera Moussa, Egypt’s first female nuclear and medical physicist. She was born in 1917 and grew up in the Gharbia governorate (500 km east from where the Dabaa nuclear plant is being built).

Moussa was the first Egyptian female to earn a PhD in Atomic Radiation, the first female assistant professor at Cairo university and most importantly, an avid believer that nuclear technology could be utilised for the greater good of humanity.

  • Moussa’s focus on how radiation could be used to identify cancer cells helped her to become the first woman to achieve a PhD in Atomic Radiation in England.
  • In the 1940s, she was one of the few experts on X-Rays, which at the time were extremely costly. Moussa worked on improving the need for shorter exposure times for patients, increasing the mobility and facilitating fluoroscopic procedures (which is when the X-Ray beam passes through the patient’s body).

However, in her quest to make “nuclear technology as cheap as aspirin” and readily available, she developed an equation that would allow atoms of cheap metals to be split, thereby rendering their nuclear energy accessible.

After her time in England, she was offered a Fulbright scholarship in the 1950s to study atomic radiation. She was once again praised for the research she led there as well as at the university of Missouri. This led to another offer of American citizenship and a Green Card, but she refused. Her priority was to return to Egypt.

Before leaving, she was invited to visit a couple of nuclear labs in California, a decision that stirred fury among many, as this meant she was the first non-US citizen to have access to such facilities. Not only was Moussa from the Middle-East, but she was also a woman.

Following her sudden death in California on 5 August 1952, Cairo has longed to produce its own nuclear power. In the case of Moussa, nuclear power was another opportunity to make the world a better place, and not to turn it into a darker one.

As Homi Bhabha, an Indian scientist eloquently said in 1955: “With limitless power under his control, man must learn to control himself.”

Nuclear megaproject

Dabaa is a mega project backed by a Russian state loan of $25bn (and an additional $5bn, with Egypt raising the remainder from private investors). The contract signed in 2015 between Egypt and Russia is a first for Cairo.

The project is under construction in the city of Dabaa within the Marsa Matruh governorate. The four-reactors program has a capacity of producing 4,800 megawatts, with the payment of the loan due to start by October 2029 at an interest of 3%. The completion of the project is scheduled for 2028.

A satellite photo of the Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt (facebook)

Egypt is no exception to the global inflation crisis, but despite feeling the pinch from the war, Cairo has been criticised for not outwardly blaming Russia. That ambiguity allowed it to keep its doors open when a Russian delegation came to visit the Dabaa’s nuclear power plant in April.

The ties between Cairo and Moscow go back to the days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954 – 1970), who was an avid supporter of socialism. During his tenure, Cairo hosted around 20,000 USSR soldiers. Egypt also received strong Russian support following the second revolution in 2013 (or coup d’état) and it came without any questions regarding its human rights record.

Green future?

In 2020, Egypt contributed to 0.61% of the planet’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, a relatively lower score compared to the 0.70% it reached in 2017. With a growing population, growing energy needs and a high dependency on oil, Cairo must diversify its energy sources.

Aside from Dabaa, the construction of solar and wind energy facilities will continue to grow in the next three years to generate around 4,300 megawatts of power. Egypt is pursuing – on multiple fronts – ways to further reduce emissions and move to renewable and nuclear energy.

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