* Morocco plans two 1-gigawatt reactors
* Energy imports cost Morocco around $8 bln a year
* Cabinet also okays draft law for nuclear security
RABAT, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Morocco, the only North African country that has no oil or gas of its own, on Thursday approved creation of an agency to ensure nuclear plant safety, helping advance slow-moving plans for its first nuclear reactors.
Authorities last year said the country’s first two 1-gigawatt nuclear reactors would come into operation after 2020 and that the first international tenders for the plants would be launched between 2011 and 2014.
Morocco spent 64.7 billion dirhams ($7.6 billion) on energy imports for the period January-November 2010, up from 54.2 billion in all of 2009, official data shows.
The official MAP news agency said the cabinet on Thursday approved setting up the agency as well as a draft law governing nuclear security.
The agency is important because it would handle cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in pushing forward and monitoring the project.
The draft law defines processes that authorise and control all activities that use “ionizing radiation”, MAP said, quoting a government spokesman.
Among other issues, those processes cover “authorised installations and activities, approvals for providers of technical assistance in the field of (nuclear) security, informing the public on the setting up of a national emergency plan and a national system for the control and compatibility of nuclear material,” it added.
Companies from several countries including France, Russia and Japan have watched Morocco’s slow progress in realising its nuclear energy ambitions.
But the launch last year of a more than $9 billion solar energy programme has revived optimism that Morocco, which wants to export renewable electricity to Europe, will make faster strides towards developing its first nuclear power plants.
Morocco hopes its solar programme will account for 38 percent of the country’s installed power generation capacity by 2020.
Russia’s Atomstroyeksport [ATMSTF.ULK] in 2007 was among firms that expressed interest in providing Morocco with its first nuclear power plant. But in July, Rabat and Paris signed an agreement for the development of a civilian nuclear energy programme.
Energy Minister Amina Benkhadra told French newspaper Les Echos in June that France would help its former protectorate build its first nuclear power plants.
Morocco aims to export surplus electricity to Europe via Spain. Morocco’s state-run power utility ONE doubled the capacity of its interconnector to Spain to 400 megawatts in 2007.
Moroccan officials say they intend to use uranium extracted from vast phosphate deposits in the country as feedstock for the planned nuclear power plants. The country of 32 million sits on nearly half the world’s phosphate reserves, including deposits in the disputed Western Sahara. (Reporting by Maghreb newsroom; Editing by Jane Baird)