The coming decade will herald the start of the Middle East’s atomic age. By 2020, Gulf states and countries in the wider region hope to have successfully developed nuclear power projects. As reactors take up to 10 years to plan and build, preparations for these schemes are well under way.

Within the GCC, the UAE is leading the race to be the first to develop a nuclear power plant, awarding a South Korean consortium a $20bn contract to build four nuclear reactors in December 2009. The first 1,400MW reactor is due to begin production in 2017, with three additional units operational by 2020. 

Future nuclear plants in the Middle East

Since this award, details of the nuclear hopes of other GCC states have slowly emerged. In April 2010, the Bahrain government issued a request for expressions of interest to provide technical advisory services for its proposed nuclear project. The same month, Saudi Arabia unveiled plans to establish the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy in Riyadh – a scientific centre that will develop the kingdom’s strategy for nuclear and renewable power.

In Kuwait, the preliminary findings of a feasibility study to build reactors at six potential sites are due to be presented to parliament at the end of this year. The state plans to have one or two nuclear power projects operational by 2020-22, but in time this could be increased to four. The plants are expected to have a capacity of at least 1,000MW each.

Timeline for first nuclear power plants
Country Year
Iran 2011
UAE 2017
Egypt 2019
Jordan 2019
Kuwait 2020
Source: MEED

The other GCC member states, Qatar and Oman, have also previously expressed an interest in developing their own civilian nuclear power programmes or participating in a region-wide scheme. The integrated GCC electricity network, which is nearing completion, would make it feasible for a large-scale plant to serve multiple countries and experts say this option is being given serious consideration. Yemen has also expressed an interest in being involved in a joint project.

Outside the GCC, Jordan and Egypt have made the most progress in developing their atomic energy programmes. In November 2009, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) appointed Australia’s WorleyParsons to carry out the feasibility study for the country’s first 1,000MW nuclear reactor, to be built near the port of Aqaba. The following month, it awarded a $173m contract for a nuclear research reactor to a South Korean team of Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and Daewoo Engineering & Construction. Since then, JAEC has drawn up a shortlist of three preferred bidders to supply reactors to its programme.

Jordan has an advantage over other states in the region looking to develop nuclear power in that it has abundant uranium reserves, estimated at more than 70,000 tonnes. Amman plans to construct at least four nuclear reactors over the next 30 years and says atomic power could account for more than 70 per cent of electricity generated in the country by 2040.

WorleyParsons is also advising the Egypt Nuclear Power Plants Authority on its plan to build a 1,200MW reactor. Under an eight-year $160m contract, the firm will conduct site and technology selection studies, as well as overseeing the design, construction, commissioning and start-up of the plant. Cairo is looking into the possibility of building four plants by 2025, with the first coming online in 2019.

Several other countries in the wider Middle East and North Africa region are also considering nuclear power as an option, including Algeria and Syria.

Of course, one country in the region that has been developing nuclear power for decades is Iran, and its controversial and much-delayed 1,000MW Bushehr plant is expected to start up in early 2011. Plans for two similar-sized facilities are in the pipeline.

Power demand growing in the Middle East

The push towards nuclear is being driven by the need to keep pace with rapidly rising demand for electricity in the region, as well as a growing shortage of gas, which is forcing utilities to consider alternative forms of energy. According to the UAE’s Electricity Ministry, the country only has enough gas to provide 20,000-25,000MW of electricity, but peak power demand is forecast to climb to 40,000MW by 2020.

The challenge is that with so many countries looking to build nuclear power projects at the same time, the supply chain is likely to become overstretched – not just in terms of technology providers, but also the availability of skilled operators. There is also likely to be pressure on pricing and financing could become difficult to secure.

Furthermore, as the example of Iran illustrates, there is still much concern in the West about Middle East states acquiring nuclear technologies. It was not so long ago that suspected installations in Syria and Iraq were subject to bombardment.

For that reason, countries hoping to build nuclear power plants today will need to display outstanding transparency and honesty to ensure their schemes are successfully implemented with the backing of the Western powers.