(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON, March 4 The Middle East generates a
smaller share of electricity from nuclear than any other region
of the world. But before the end of the decade the United Arab
Emirates (UAE) is set to join Iran, which has linked a nuclear
power plant to its grid.
Other countries considering construction of reactors include
Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The attraction of building nuclear power plants to provide
cheap baseload power, preserving oil and gas for exports, is
In 2011, countries in the Middle East and South Asia
generated just 1.8 percent of their electricity from nuclear,
compared with 87.3 percent from oil, gas and coal, according to
the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ("International
Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power 2012").
The Middle East's reliance on thermal generation is not
surprising, given that it contains some of the largest oil and
gas deposits in the world.
Some foreign policy analysts have wondered why a country
like Iran (or for that matter Saudi Arabia) would want to
develop nuclear when it has abundant gas and oil supplies. Some
assume that civilian nuclear power programmes are just a cover
for military ambitions.
But many countries in the region, including Turkey and
Pakistan, have few petroleum or coal resources of their own. And
major oil and gas producers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran
need to reserve as much as possible for export. For the big
producers, oil and gas are more valuable if they can be exported
rather than burned in domestic power plants to produce
Financial pressure on both producers and importers is set to
become intense as population growth and rising incomes boost
electricity demand substantially.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has more than 30 Gigawatts (GW)
of generation, split between gas and oil, but demand is growing
8 percent per year, and is expected to hit 60 GW by 2020.
The UAE, which relies almost entirely on gas for generation,
some of it imported, forecasts electricity demand will grow by 9
percent a year, and require 40 GW of capacity by the end of the
decade, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), a
CURRENT AND FUTURE PLANTS
At the moment, the only Middle East country with a civilian
plant is Iran, which commissioned its reactor at Bushehr in
2011, becoming the first new member of the civilian nuclear
power club in 15 years, according to the IAEA.
Several other countries are constructing or planning new
nuclear plants. The UAE is the most advanced. It has awarded a
$20 billion contract to a consortium led by Korea Electric Power
Corporation (KEPCO) to build 4 reactors capable of generating
1.4 GW each by 2020.
Building work on the first started in July 2012. It is set
to begin generating in 2017, with one additional reactor coming
onstream in each of the following three years.
Turkey, which generates half its power from imported Russian
and Iranian gas, is considering an application to build and
operate up to four 1.2 GW reactors at Akkuyu, near the port of
Mersin on the Mediterranean coast.
The first contracts for site work were completed in February
2013 and the reactors are expected to start up between 2019 and
Jordan is also carrying out pre-construction studies for a 1
GW reactor to help meet an expected doubling in demand by 2030.
Saudi Arabia has the most ambitious plans of all.
The kingdom wants to build up to 16 reactors over the next
two decades. "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," according to a decree issued
Not all of these projects will proceed. Israel and Oman have
both abandoned planned power projects in recent years. Others in
Libya, Syria and Egypt have been overtaken by uprisings and
Saudi Arabia has the money to develop a string of nuclear
plants (costed at $80 billion for 16 reactors) but has made no
progress. Jordan has the inclination but may not have either the
money or a suitable site with adequate water supply.
However, the UAE's four reactors, and at least some in
Turkey, seem likely to be built before the end of the decade,
with some more to come in the 2020s, possibly in Saudi Arabia.
NUCLEAR FREE NO MORE
The spread of nuclear power in the world's most politically
unstable region is bound to cause alarm. Iran's nuclear
programme has long been seen by many of its regional rivals, as
well as the United States, Israel and European countries, as a
cover for developing atomic weapons.
In reality, building a bomb and building a civilian nuclear
reactor have little in common. The one element they share is the
enrichment. Reactor fuel is enriched to just 5 percent while
bomb-grade uranium is enriched to 95 percent, but the process is
essentially the same.
The concern of the United States and its allies has shifted
from Iran's power plant at Bushehr to its enrichment activities
at Natanz, Fordow and elsewhere. The Iranian government insists
these are producing reactor fuel (enriched to 5 percent) and
medical isotopes (enriched to 20 percent) but the United States
and Israel fear it is producing a stock of uranium that could be
further enriched to bomb-grade quickly and secretly.
Proliferation experts have therefore sought to separate
power generation from the fuel cycle. The IAEA has approved the
creation of a "bank" for low-enriched uranium (LEU) to be funded
with $150 million contributed by members and hosted in
Kazakhstan. It has also negotiated the creation of a 120-tonne
LEU reserve located at the International Uranium Enrichment
Centre at Angarsk in the Russian Federation.
In 2011, the IAEA approved a proposal from the United
Kingdom, co-sponsored by the EU, Russia and the United States,
to create a "model nuclear fuel assurance agreement" by which a
state supplying LEU or enrichment services to another would
agree not to interrupt supplies to recipients that comply with
international obligations and published export licensing
The idea is that countries like Iran, the UAE and Turkey
should produce their own power, but not enrich uranium or
reprocess their own spent fuel. Instead, the fuel cycle would be
hosted in an existing and trusted nuclear country, like Russia
or the United Kingdom. In return, the model agreement tries to
give generators some assurance their fuel supply would not be
interrupted for any reason provided they comply with their
The UAE has already agreed to forego domestic enrichment and
reprocessing and "to conclude long-term arrangements ... for the
secure supply of nuclear fuel, as well as the safe
transportation and if available disposal of spent fuel via fuel
leasing or other emerging fuel supply arrangements," according
to WNA. Fuel supply contracts have been signed with companies
from Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Russia.
The Western powers initially seem to have hoped to force
Iran to accept similar arrangements, abandoning its domestic
enrichment activities and relying instead on fuel that would be
supplied and reprocessed from overseas.
It now seems unlikely Iran will agree to forego domestic
enrichment entirely. Western objectives seem to have shifted
towards allowing some enrichment within the country, but trying
to steer the government away from enriching to 20 percent and
restricting it to 5 percent.
Despite the obvious political and military problems, the
economic case for more nuclear generation in the Middle East is
compelling. The region's gas and especially crude oil are too
valuable to disappear up in power-station smoke (literally).
Nuclear along with solar is a sensible alternative for domestic
But if the expansion of civilian nuclear power is not to
give rise to fears about weapons proliferation, more countries
may need to follow the UAE and agree to separate power
generation from the fuel cycle.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)