Regional nuclear programmes face delays

15 March 2011

Potential nuclear meltdown in Japan and political unrest to force review of existing plans

Countries with ongoing nuclear programmes

  • Bahrain
  • Egypt
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Iran
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Turkey
  • Tunisia
  • UAE

The region’s nuclear power programmes look set to be delayed following a series of explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after an earthquake in Japan and the political unrest that has swept the region.

The UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are all planning to commission nuclear power plants. Although governments remain committed to these plans, they are being reviewed due to security and safety concerns following protests around the region and events in Japan.

Bahrain’s nuclear programme is the most vulnerable in the region. The government declared a three-month state of emergency on 15 March following the arrival of troops from nearby Saudi Arabia as violence in the kingdom intensified. Most foreign nationals are now leaving the island and the nuclear programme along with the rest of the economy is expected to stall.

The nuclear programme, which was launched in 2010, was doubtful even before the protests started in February this year. Senior members of the Bahraini government said that the island’s small size and the cost of developing nuclear power meant it would be difficult to develop.

The project has also been moved from different government departments. The project was originally handled by the finance ministry before it was moved to the defence ministry. It was then moved to the Economic Development Board (EDB) at the end of 2010.

Having overthrown its president, Egypt says its plans to build a 1,200MW plant at El-Dabaa will still go ahead. “Electricity and Energy Minister Hassan Younes has reaffirmed that current events have not had much effect on the nuclear programme and that contacts with international companies have been under way over the past few days,” the cabinet said in a statement. “These companies have confirmed their willingness to participate in the tender as soon as it is put forward,” it added.

Although unaffected by the mass protests that have held in many countries across the region, Abu Dhabi has adopted a more cautious approach as the possibility of a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant grows. “At this stage, Enec is closely monitoring the situation in Japan. Our thoughts remain with all those affected by the recent events” says an Enec spokesman.

Abu Dhabi plans to build four units with a total capacity of 5,600MW. In 2009, it awarded a $40bn contract to a South Korean firm to develop the plants, which are scheduled to start operating in June 2017.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have also unveiled plans to develop nuclear power programmes. Kuwait is currently undergoing feasibility studies at several sites for sizeable nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has outlined plans for a series of nuclear plants at the King Abdullah City for Atomic & Renewable Energy.

Even if the schemes do move ahead, the problems at the plant in Japan could result in new regulations and design guidelines. “[The problems in Japan] might teach us that we need more redundancy capacity. It will be a challenge for technical engineers,” says Jordan Atomic Energy Commissioner Ned Xoubi. “Another important issue is the containment of fuel… [The projects in Japan] used temporary storage at the plant for long-term storage of fuel for 20 years. The fuel should not have been stored here. We will definitely see more regulation in this area as a result.”

The only operating nuclear power plant in the region is in Iran, which like Japan is a seismic zone. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that the Bushehr 1 plant that was commissioned in 2010 conformed to the latest safety standards, unlike the Japanese plant that began operations 40 years ago in 1971. “All safety rules and regulations and the highest standards have been applied to the Bushehr (nuclear) power plant,” Ahmadinejad told Spanish state television TVE.

The Bushehr plant was built using Russian technology and Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a meeting of the G8 foreign ministers in Paris that the plant has been designed to withstand earthquakes. “(The Bushehr) project meets all safety requirements, both in as far as technology and seismic stability are concerned,” he said.

Iran sparked controversy in the early 1990s when it decided to build the nuclear on a major fault line. Iran has experienced major earthquakes in the past. The Bam earthquake in 2003 killed up to 30,000 people and the 1990 Manjil-Rudbar earthquake killed up to 40,000.

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