Time to Pause: Risks of Nuclear in the Volatile Middle East and North Africa Region

radiation japan middle east nuclearThe Arab region holds the densest concentration on earth of countries seeking to generate nuclear electricity for the first time. Rola points out the dangers.

Over the last few years, while talk of a nuclear power ‘renaissance’ was spreading globally, Middle Eastern and North African countries have been rushing to jump on the commercial nuclear power bandwagon. As posted in Green Prophet recently, the unfolding Japanese nuclear crisis should serve a warning for a politically volatile region prone to earthquakes and other man-made disasters. Here’s a brief review of how far some of these countries have come in building their first commercial nuclear plants and key issues at stake.

Major nuclear plans

According to the World Nuclear Association, the Arab region holds the densest concentration on earth of countries seeking to generate nuclear electricity for the first time. If all goes according to plan, it is estimated that reactors will start coming online by 2017 or 2018, with more following through 2030.

Virtually all the Middle East and North African countries are actively considering the development of a nuclear power program. Even Sudan, Algeria, Libya and Morocco have nuclear energy proposals in earlier stages. However, the United Arab Emirates’ program is the one that is the most developed, with nuclear power from the first plant of a 14-strong fleet planned to be on the electricity grid by 2017.

The UAE’s demand for electricity over the next 10 years is forecasted to grow at a rate of 9 per cent per year, and nuclear power is seen as a key component of the country’s long-term energy strategy.

Jordan, which imports approximately 95 per cent of its energy needs, is planning to introduce nuclear power calls for nuclear energy to generate 30 per cent of the country’s electricity by 2040. Building a 750-1100MW nuclear power plant will start in 2013, to begin operating in 2018. A second plant is to begin operating in 2025.

Unlike most of the other countries in the region, Egypt has been considering developing a civilian nuclear power program for approximately 60 years. Egypt’s refusal to ratify the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons until 1981 put a delay to these ambitious plans. However the decision was taken in 2007, to proceed with a national nuclear power program involving building four nuclear power plants by 2025.

Saudi Arabia seeks nuclear too

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, increasing energy demand is forcing the Kingdom to look at all possible sources of energy, including nuclear. In August 2009, Saudi Arabia formally announced that it was considering implementing a nuclear power program. This announcement was followed in April 2010 by the establishment of King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy which states that “the development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom’s growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources”.

Last April, Saudi Arabia announced it would set aside a section of the capital, Riyadh, to be powered solely by nuclear energy, and two months later, the Saudi government announced a joint venture with a Japanese company, Toshiba, and two American companies, the Shaw Group and Exelon, to build and run two nuclear plants to generate electricity.

Which brings us to the business dimension of nuclear energy. There’s big business deal making in building and operating nuclear plans, which explains the international corporate and political interests involved. Reactors cost billions of dollars to set up, and require foreign know how and expertise.

The U.S. signed a nuclear cooperation deal with Tunisia similar to the one it inked with the United Arab Emirates last year. Russia signed agreement to help Kuwait develop a nuclear power program, and France has deals with both Tunisia and Kuwait. Meanwhile, Jordan drew up a pact earlier with Japan, allowing huge suppliers like Mitsubishi and Toshiba to sell reactors there while Egypt was until recently seeking international bids for the construction contract for its first coastal Mediterranean site.

Why the rush?

Motivations for going nuclear differ but diversification of the energy sectors to cope with the growing energy needs has been the major publicly stated factor. There is of course a general underlying fear that Iran will use its nuclear facilities to manufacture fuel for atomic bombs and a long held assumption that Israel, already secretly joined the nuclear weapon countries.

In addition to the widespread suspicion that civilian nuclear power is a “covert preparation for a nuclear arms race”, for anyone monitoring the news on nuclear the last few years, there is also a sense that for may of these governments having nuclear power is a symbol of national prestige or honor, showcasing regional leadership in scientific and technological knowledge.

Absence of “nuclear culture”

While all the nuclear power programs in MENA are at different stages of development, in each case nuclear plants will be newly built. Each state must develop the infrastructure, legal/security framework, as well as nuclear safety procedures needed for a building a nuclear power program entirely from scratch. In a region with limited qualified worker expertise and unique labor market conditions, building a “nuclear culture” committed to quality, safety, accountability, and performance will be a challenge.

The complexity on the human resources side cannot be pushed aside. Building and operating nuclear plants also requires hundreds of specialists and trained engineers potentially creating an over-reliance on foreign nuclear expertise and technology. It will take decades of careful and planned preparation to make this skill available domestically as importing low skilled foreign workers, common practice in the construction industry, is not a viable option.

At an agency meeting last summer, Abdelmajid Mahjoub, Chairman of the Arab Atomic Energy Agency, said “the use of atomic energy is an inevitable choice in the development of Arab countries.”

But the world has changed since last summer. Revolutions are breaking up, tensions and frustrations on the street are running high, political divisions across the region are widening, while natural disasters are threatening sophisticated reactors which have been built to withstand “known” quakes, all of which make the idea of nuclear plants in North Africa and the Middle East very unsettling.

Nuclear commercial energy is still too risky anywhere in the world, but particularly in the Arab world, it cannot be part of the solution for the future energy security of the region.

Read more on nuclear energy in the Arab world:
Australia Offers Uranium Sales to the UAE
Israel Seeks To Build Nuclear Plants With Arab Neighbors
Nuclear Powered Water for the UAE?

Image via wonderferret

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