Nuclear case is unproven

18 January 2008
Nuclear power has been a divisive political issue in the Middle East in recent years, mainly because of suspicions over Iran’s intentions. But few objections have been raised to the recent moves by the UAE and Qatar to join the nuclear power club - the issue for them is whether it makes economic sense.

There are strong arguments in favour of nuclear energy. As fossil fuel supplies dwindle, the region will have to develop alternative methods of generating electricity.

For now, renewable energy sources are not a viable option to completely replace fossil fuels.

There are also economic arguments for going nuclear. Despite abundant oil and gas reserves, demand for energy is outstripping supply. Gas shortages have already driven some Gulf states to return to liquid fuel for new power plants, which is a costly exercise. Nuclear power could provide a cheaper solution.

In addition, soaring energy market prices mean it is more attractive for countries to sell gas to inter-national customers than to hand it to local utility firms at subsidised prices.

Of course, there are clear disadvantages too. A nuclear power plant does not emit any carbon dioxide once working, but the spent fuel is a dangerous, long-term problem, and the cost of dealing with it is unclear. In addition, there is always the threat of a Chernobyl-style disaster or terrorist attack.

It was the 1970s oil crisis that prompted France to accelerate its nuclear programme to the point that it now supplies 78 per cent of its electricity.

Today, France is the leading supplier of nuclear technology to the Gulf.

Its motives are clear. Securing major contracts in the region will bring in significant revenues and help maintain its expertise.

But while the economic case for developing nuclear energy is persuasive at today’s oil and gas prices, there is no guarantee they will remain at those levels.

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