At MEED’s Arabian Power & Water Summit (APWS) on 31 March, Pradeep Aggarwal, head of Isotope Hydrology Section at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), showed a map of the world with countries producing nuclear power in dark blue.
They included leaders in the field such as the US, Russia, China, the UK and France. Less well known is that nuclear power accounts for more than half the electricity produced in Belgium, Lithuania and Slovakia.
He then showed in light blue the countries thinking about building nuclear power plants. The map instantly changed hue. Practically every significant country has nuclear plans. In the Middle East, only Iraq and Yemen doesn’t.
Nuclear technology is compelling. Fission generates vast amounts of energy in plants far smaller than their conventional equivalents. Operating costs are less than half. The amount of uranium required is tiny and there are no carbon emissions. At the APWS, there was consensus that nuclear power should meet at least part of the Middle East’s long-term energy needs.
But there are nagging doubts. The first is about the cost of nuclear power station construction. Aggarwal said that it takes up to $8,000 for every kilowatt of electricity capacity if decommissioning is taken into account.
This means a 750MW station, probably the smallest viable size for a nuclear plant, could cost $6bn. That’s up to six times more than a conventional unit with the same capacity. Proponents dispute these projections, particularly if a cost is attached to carbon emission output. But there is no doubt the upfront expense of going nuclear power is comparatively high.
But the biggest worries are not economic. The first is about enrichment. This involves concentrating uranium to make fission possible. Enrichment also leads to the production of weapons-grade material.
The world’s attention is fixed on Iran’s determination to develop enrichment capabilities. But the real issue is a contradiction at the heart of the IAEA’s mission. It is advocating nuclear power as a means of accelerating economic development while simultaneously trying to contain the spread of the technology that makes it possible.
The agency is trying to find a way that uranium enrichment can be carried out centrally or by closely-controlled sources. But there is an obvious problem. Going nuclear, which is designed to increase energy security, only makes sense when it is done on a large scale.
This will make countries dependent on nuclear power. If deliveries of nuclear feedstock can be interrupted, their energy security will be reduced not increased. This is why Iran is insisting on having control over the entire nuclear feedstock supply chain.
The second big issue is what to do with nuclear waste. Since no sane person wants it near where they live, US nuclear power companies have been forced to store waste on site. This is both costly and potentially hazardous.
Champions of nuclear power argue that the problems can be overcome with sufficient political will. But this cannot be said about the third issue: the possibility of disasters such as the Chernobyl meltdown. Accidents cannot be ruled out, particularly as a result of unforeseen natural disasters or war.
Going nuclear is an irreversible action. Once you have an operating power station, there is no safe way of shutting it down. That is why the atmosphere following Aggarwal’s APWS presentation was subdued and even fearful. Decisions that will change the face of the Gulf forever are about to be taken.
Nuclear power may be the only answer to the long-term Gulf energy challenge. But there are short-term palliatives. If waste was eliminated, there would probably be enough capacity in existing Gulf power stations for at least 10 years. Up to 50 per cent of the water produced in Gulf desalination plants is lost because of leaky pipes. Changing the orientation of buildings to cut their exposure to direct sunlight could reduce air-conditioning consumption by at least 10 per cent.
But there is a far larger question that deserves serious thought. It is this. Does the world really want to see a nuclear power race in the Middle East when it remains so dangerously divided?