With growing economies driving up demand for energy, and environmental and supply constraints putting pressure on fossil fuels, countries in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region are seeking new energy options.
Many are looking to nuclear energy not only to provide a reliable, 24/7 source of electricity, but also for use in the desalination of water supplies.
About 10 per cent of the world’s electricity is currently produced by nuclear power, and nuclear generation is steadily growing: the capacity of new projects due to come online this year is expected to be three times the average of the previous 25 years.
There has been a resurgence in active nuclear projects, with 22GW electric (GWe) of new capacity introduced in the past three years, and a further 33GWe due to be added in the next two years.
The growing economies of Asia are a focus for this new-build activity: nuclear generation in the region has increased by 35 per cent since 2012, and 39 of the 57 reactors currently under construction worldwide are being built in Asia.
At Barakah in the UAE, four APR-1400 reactors have been under construction since 2012, and the first is approaching completion. All four reactors are due to be operational by 2020, when they will deliver a total plant capacity of 5.6GWe.
This is a similar capacity to the 5GWe planned for the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Solar Park, being built on 214 square kilometres of desert to the south of Dubai.
Construction of the solar park also began in 2012, but it will not reach its full capacity until 2030. Unlike the solar plant, the UAE’s nuclear plant will also produce electricity at maximum output day and night, meaning Barakah will produce about 2.5 times as much electricity as the same capacity of solar panels.
This difference has advantages, with solar power helping to meet the higher electricity demand during the day, and nuclear providing a reliable supply to meet the baseload demand.
In Saudi Arabia, a royal decree in April 2010 announced 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”.
Cooperation agreements have been signed with international nuclear companies with the aim of establishing a nuclear build programme and targeting a built capacity of 17GWe by 2040.
Saudi Arabia is also looking to develop small modular reactors for electricity generation and desalination. King Abdullah City for Atomic & Renewable Energy and Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute agreed in March 2015 to assess the case for building at least two South Korean system-integrated modular advanced reactors in Saudi Arabia.
Egypt has also been eyeing the development of nuclear energy for several decades. Significant progress was made in April 2013, when Egypt approached Russia to renew its nuclear cooperation agreement, focused on the construction of a nuclear power plant at El-Dabaa.
In December 2017, Rosatom director-general Alexey Likhachov and Egypt’s Electricity and Renewable Energy Minister Mohamed Shaker signed notices to proceed with contracts for the construction of four VVER-1200 units at El-Dabaa.
The El-Dabaa reactors will be dual-purpose; about 14 per cent of the heat produced by the reactor will be used for desalination. The majority of the heat output will be used to generate 1,050MW electric in each reactor.
Impressive as these figures are, the pace of new development needs to be accelerated if nuclear energy is to meet its projected contribution to global electricity supplies by non-hydrocarbon means.
The World Nuclear Association has led the development of the nuclear industry’s vision for the future which is known as the Harmony programme. This envisages a diverse mix of low-carbon-generating technologies deployed in a manner that maximises the benefits of each while minimising their negative impacts.
The target is for nuclear energy to provide 25 per cent of electricity in 2050, which would require around 1,000GWe of newly built nuclear capacity.
This is a practical and achievable target, requiring average build rates no greater than those achieved in the mid-1980s. To achieve this, however, there should be fair markets that recognise both the environmental benefits of nuclear energy and the reliability of its supply.
Greater harmonisation of regulatory processes and an effective safety paradigm, based on public wellbeing, are also needed.
Agneta Rising is director-general of the World Nuclear Association