Row over university’s closure of nuclear centre

A decision by the state-run Cairo University to close a nuclear energy centre has sparked a controversy as Egypt is planning to build its first nuclear plant. The university board voted for the centre’s shutdown, citing its lack of economic and scientific feasibility.

“Since its establishment more than five years ago, the centre did not conduct any significant scientific or practical activity,” said the president of Cairo University, Gaber Nassar, adding that closing the centre was part of a move by the institution to shut loss-incurring facilities.

“The university administration had asked the manager of the nuclear energy centre to provide reasons to keep it in operation,” Nassar told the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“When the university board found these reasons unconvincing, it unanimously voted for the centre’s closure. We could have kept the centre if it had done a national service.”

Nassar said that he had secured the approval of state authorities before moving to close the centre. “I contacted key state agencies and asked them if they could see a reason for keeping the centre. They told me that they don’t need it.

“In addition, there is a nuclear engineering department at Alexandria University. Therefore, there was no need to have two centres doing the same job.”

Last November, Egypt and Russia signed an agreement to establish a nuclear power plant in the northern Egyptian area of El Dabaa. The plant, to be financed by a Russian loan, is expected to be completed by 2022 with the aim of diversifying sources for covering the energy needs of Egypt, which is the Arab world’s most populous country.

Egypt has said that the project includes constructing a plant with four nuclear reactors. The country has considered building a nuclear plant since the 1980s. But it put the plan on hold after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

In 2006 the initiative was revived when long-time president Hosni Mubarak was in power. Mubarak was forced out of office following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, who took office in 2014, has backed a peaceful nuclear programme in Egypt, saying it fulfils a “long dream”.

Hoda Abu Shadi, head of the now-defunct nuclear energy centre, said it could have boosted the country’s nuclear programme. “The centre could have helped in grooming specialists needed for Egypt’s nuclear power plant,” she told private broadcaster Dream TV.

“The centre produced a number of research papers that were awarded prestigious international prizes.”

Abu Shadi, a lecturer in Cairo University’s school of science, denied that the centre had incurred financial losses.

“The centre was self-financing through two grants it had obtained from the governmental Academy of Scientific Research [and Technology],” she said. “Thus, the centre didn’t cost the university a single penny.”

But the university’s president downplayed the centre’s potential. “In view of its nature as a research centre, it would have no role in qualifying technicians in the field of nuclear energy,” Nassar said. If state authorities wanted a centre to groom needed experts in this field, it could easily be set up, he added.