Reports emerged from the Egyptian state media on Thursday (Jan. 19) that radioactive material has been stolen from the Dabaa nuclear power plant on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, following violent protests by local residents. The thieves stole a safe containing radioactive material from the plant, which is still under construction and is the first nuclear plant in the country, while another safe also containing radioactive material was apparently broken into and had some of its contents taken.
A United Nations nuclear agency official described the missing material as “low-level radioactive sources” which had been removed from a laboratory at the construction site. “We are in touch with the Egyptian authorities,” the official from the International Atomic Energy Agency said.
The Egyptian government has alerted the country’s security authorities and requested that specialized teams join the search for the material stolen from the 900-megawatt pressurized-water-reactor nuclear power plant, which is northwest of Cairo.
Approximately 500 people had previously descended on the Dabaa plant to protest its presence in the area, claiming that the government had confiscated their land to build the nuclear plant without offering any compensation. The furious protesters ran rampant around the plant, committing multiple acts of vandalism and looting. According to one source, the protesters – who attacked the plant’s meteorological station, ground water station and many of its offices – seized objects including computers, monitoring devices for earthquakes, furniture, cables and transformers.
Violent clashes broke out when military police attempted to disperse the crowd – which had just torn down a wall surrounding the construction site – with soldiers and demonstrators lobbing stones and exchanging rounds of gunfire with each other. More than a dozen protestors sustained injuries as a result. The following day, many local residents returned to stage a sit-in at the site.
Rumors have circulated that the members of the Nuclear Stations Authority committee, who traveled to the plant the day after the riot to assess the damages, refused to enter the site when they learned that the safes containing radioactive elements were missing. But Aktham Aboul Ela, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Electricity Ministry, denied that any signs of radioactivity had been detected there. “We found chemicals in two locations,” he stated, “but they are not hazardous.”
An unnamed source at the Ministry of Electricity and Energy said that losses from the vandalism are estimated at approximately $83 million.
Radioactive material is hazardous to most forms of life and the environment, potentially causing illnesses to people who become exposed to radiation from contaminated soil and water. It is strictly regulated by most governments in order to protect human health an the environment.