Interest in nuclear power in the Middle East has grown steadily over the past decade. By 2010, almost every country in the region had plans to develop atomic energy and a race to secure the necessary components, contractors and personnel was well under way.

But since the start of the year, the protests that have swept across the region have raised uncertainty about the nuclear power plans. Bahrain and Egypt’s programmes, in particular, are now certain to face delays.

In addition, nuclear power’s claim to be the most viable clean alternative to fossil-fuelled power generation has been undermined by the series of explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan following that country’s terrible earthquake on 11 March. For many years, the idea of developing a nuclear power programme in the Middle East was unthinkable. With enough oil and gas reserves to serve domestic demand and plenty more to export, nuclear power was expensive, unpredictable and unnecessary.

The situation has changed steadily due to concerns over diminishing hydrocarbon reserves. Oil-rich nations are increasingly aware of the economic value of selling their reserves on the international market or retaining it under the ground for future generations rather than using it to meet domestic demands.

Nuclear power provided the perfect solution. But such projects require large initial investment during the construction phase. With petrodollars to spend, countries such as Saudi Arabia would be able to handle the initial investment.

But the regional unrest and Japan’s nuclear disaster have combined to bring back old concerns. The immediate impact will be delays to nuclear projects, while the industry reviews its safety regulations. The events of the first quarter of 2011 will make the nuclear case harder to sell. Projects may be cancelled and schedules pushed back. The nuclear race is still on, but it is moving at a slower pace.