Nuclear energy is slowly building, or rather, rebuilding its reputation as a cleaner, more cost-efficient alternative to hydrocarbons, with new and safer technology being developed and the world’s electricity needs increasing.
The Middle East’s affair with nuclear power has been complicated. Iran brought on itself serious sanctions because of its nuclear program that it claimed was completely peaceful. Iraq has been the object of long-term suspicions about trying to make its own bomb. The rest of the region has been historically over-dependent on oil and gas. Yet, things are starting to change.
At the start of 2016, there were seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa region working on nuclear programs for peaceful purposes – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. A few years ago there were 11 of them, but after the Fukushima disaster, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait put their nuclear plans on hold for an unspecified period.
The latest nuclear news from the Middle East is the installation of a third reactor vessel at the UAE’s Barakah power plant, which is planned to start operating next year and reach full capacity three years later, taking care of 25 percent of the Emirates’ energy needs. All in all, Saudi Arabia is the most ambitious, planning 16 reactors to be built by 2032, with a capacity of 17 GW that will satisfy 15 percent of the country’s energy needs. Egypt and Jordan have already picked Russia’s Rosatom to oversee their first nuclear power plants.
The idea of diversifying energy sources is by all means reasonable, even for countries that are swimming in oil and gas such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. It’s always better to put your eggs in more than one basket. However, since 2014, cash has dwindled, thanks to the oil price rout, and nuclear power projects need quite a lot of upfront investment. Operating expenses compensate this investment, but a hefty sum is still necessary for a brand new NPP to be built and commissioned.
The Middle East is experiencing fast-growing demand for electricity that’s closely linked to demographic trends, as Saudi Gazette notes. But thanks to falling oil revenues, these countries’ capability to fund such expensive projects has sharply fallen. Even Saudi Arabia has had to dig into its reserves in order to meet a budget deficit. Financial constraints are a major issue, according to research conducted by Apicorp, the Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation. Related: How Much Does The U.S. Spend Per Day On Petroleum Products?
There are also other issues, and these issues are mainly political. Unlike Europe, for example, public acceptance of nuclear power programs tends to be greater, and that’s a definite plus. However, the governments of the region will need to also convince the international community that their nuclear programs will only be used for peaceful purposes.
This convincing will take time, probably the next ten years, while the region works on a comprehensive, internationally agreed regulatory framework that will remove doubts about misusing nuclear energy.
The IEA estimates that just 3 percent of power generation in the Middle East and North Africa will be generated from nuclear plants, factoring in all these issues and potential problems. By the look of things, MENA has a long way to go before nuclear power takes a bigger-than-meager share of its energy mix.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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