By Felix Fallon, Matthew Hoare

Nuclear power generation has fallen out of favor across much of the world. It has declined 7% since 2006, and its share of energy mix has been decreasing steadily alongside an increase in the use of fossil fuels. There are several reasons for this. Since the oil price crash in 2014, nuclear power has become expensive in comparison to hydrocarbons. The costs of generating electricity from renewable sources are also falling rapidly, and according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, will soon become cheaper than fossil fuels. Secondly, the 2011 Fukushima disaster presented further evidence of the potentially cataclysmic effects of nuclear power generation. Following the meltdown of the Dai-ichi reactors, Germany announced plans to close all 17 of its nuclear plants by 2022, while Japan shut down 41 of its reactors.   Despite the global decrease, there has been a sharp rise in the number of nuclear power projects either under construction, planned, or proposed in the MENA region – as much as 48 have been put on paper in the last few years.

Why now?

The MENA region is seemingly bucking the global trend. While much of the world is moving away from nuclear, countries in the region are making staunch efforts to add nuclear power to their energy mix.

Jonathan Cobb of the World Nuclear Association told Egypt Oil & Gas that this trend is being caused by the rapid economic growth in certain MENA countries. “With this economic growth has come a significant increase in demand for electricity, and modern nuclear power plants generate a lot of power,” he explained. The Barakah power plant in the UAE demonstrates this power and efficiency of nuclear energy. When Barakah’s four reactors are finished, 25% of Abu Dhabi’s electricity needs will be met from a single site.

Furthermore, gas and petroleum-exporting countries may see significant economic benefits to expanding their nuclear sectors. “By reducing domestic demand for hydrocarbon fuels, nuclear generation may allow more production to be exported,” Cobb explained.

Diversification strategies are also playing a key role in the moves by Arab states to integrate nuclear into their energy portfolios. Cobb says that nuclear generation is playing a “key part” in this process, acknowledging that there are many reasons for states wanting to diversify their energy supplies; from limited reserves, to over-dependency on a single energy source, to concerns about climate change.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s venture into the nuclear power industry is a part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 modernization project for the kingdom. According to the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, the kingdom is pursuing a diversified energy mix because of the increasing demand for energy from the residential and industrial sectors, and to lessen the country’s dependence on hydrocarbons.

Around 25% of Saudi oil production is used to generate electricity for domestic use. The demand for electricity is projected to substantially increase, but oil production is not. This means that by 2030, a large amount of the country’s oil will go towards domestic power generation. The country’s current generating capacity is above 30 GWe, with demand increasing by 8-10% per year. Assuming that current rates continue, demand is expected to reach 70 GWe by 2020 and 120 GWe by 2032, partly driven by an increased need for water desalination.

As solutions to this problem, significant renewable and nuclear energy projects are being established. The nuclear energy plan initially approved by the Saudi government in July 2017 mandates the construction of 16 reactors across the next 20-25 years, costing upwards of $80 billion. According to estimates, these projects will produce 18 GWe (15% of the country’s energy demand) by 2040.

The current geopolitical realities of the Middle East may also affect Saudi policymaking towards the nuclear sector. Although Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has signalled that the country is willing to pursue nuclear weapons should Iran restart its program. “We will do whatever it takes to protect our people. We have made it very clear that if Iran acquires a nuclear capability we will do everything we can to do,” he told CNN on May 9.

Iran

Of all the MENA countries that are now seeking to develop their nuclear industries, Iran is the only country with preexisting nuclear capabilities. The country’s nuclear program originates from the 1970s when the Shah still ruled from Tehran; a time when Western nations were much more inclined to provide political and financial support for Iran’s nuclear sector. However, since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s nuclear program has been subject to far greater international scrutiny. It was only in 2015 with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that the Iranian government could feasibly look to resume the development of its peaceful nuclear program.

The history of Bushehr, the country’s only nuclear plant, has been plagued with disruptions. Although construction originally began in the 1970s, the revolution, the Iran-Iraq conflict, and Tehran’s subsequent international isolation meant that the reactor only began generating power in May 2011, and was only connected to the national grid in September of that year. Russia finally handed over full control of the plant to Iran in September 2013, marking the beginning of its commercial operations.

Iran plans to expand the Bushehr plant by adding another two reactors. Bushehr’s single reactor currently produces 1000 MW gross, while Bushehr 2 and 3 will each generate 1057 MW gross. The entire facility will therefore generate around 3100 MW upon completion – between 8 and 10% of the country’s energy needs. The construction of Bushehr 2 is scheduled to start in 2019 and it is projected to begin commercial operations in 2024. Work on Bushehr 3, meanwhile, will start in 2020, with commercial operations starting in 2025. Bushehr 2 and 3 will be built by Rosatom at a cost of around $10 billion. Smaller facilities on the Makran coast are also planned. In 2015 the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran announced that a Chinese company would construct two small reactors, generating 100 MW each.

Although the country’s electricity demand is rising by around 4% each year, Iran is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of proven hydrocarbon deposits. According to analysis by BP, the country possesses around 18% of global natural gas reserves. The country also exports sizeable amounts of oil; in April 2018, Iran shipped an average 2.6 million barrels of crude per day. Given this wealth, Iran clearly has different reasons for increasing its use of nuclear power than countries which are more dependent on energy imports such as Jordan and Egypt.

Analysis by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies argues that it was the experience under the international sanctions regime that has prompted the country’s leadership to diversify its energy supplies. Iran’s economy has felt the full-force of UN and US economic sanctions over the past decade; an experience that has highlighted the importance of preemptively developing the country’s domestic capabilities should sanctions ever be restored. Just last month, these fears were proven correct when US President Donald Trump reneged on the JCPOA and announced the re-imposition of sanctions. As Washington takes a more belligerent position towards Iran, it is likely that there will be a renewed focus on the so-called ‘resistance economy’ – of which generating energy outside of the oil and gas markets is an important component.

UAE

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s nuclear energy program has been born from a desire to diversify its energy supplies and reduce its reliance on hydrocarbons to meet domestic energy needs.

In 2008, the Emirates published a policy on nuclear energy, which projected an increasing electricity demand from 15.5 GWe in 2008 to over 40 GWe by 2020. A 2017 report on the UAE energy strategy states that the Emirates’ investment in nuclear energy will help the UAE to develop more diversified and environmentally-friendly energy solutions for both domestic use and foreign distribution. The UAE’s intention is for clean energy to make up 50% of its energy mix by 2050: 44% renewables, 38% gas, 12% clean coal and 6% nuclear.

In 2009, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) accepted a $20 billion bid from the Korean KEPCO-led consortium to build and run four APR-1400 reactors on one site in Barakah. Construction for the first reactor started in 2012 and is expected to be operational by the end of 2018. All four are planned to be producing power by the end of 2020.

However, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE has been a proponent of nuclear non-proliferation. In 2009, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan stated: “The model we have adopted is consistent with our support of and conformity with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and our rejection in principle to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.” Accordingly, the country has opted not to handle uranium conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication, but, to manage its nuclear power program based on contractor services – with the plant operator, KEPCO, being responsible for uranium mining and the fuel cycle.

Jordan

Unlike other nuclear-seeking MENA states, Jordan is a net energy importer. The kingdom imports more than 95% of its energy, spending around 20% of its annual gross domestic product on meeting its energy needs. This overwhelming reliance on energy imports means that the country is far more exposed to regional instability than the oil monarchies of the Gulf. “We lost the oil from Iraq, natural gas from Egypt, and the country has been bleeding and losing on an average $3 billion every year,” Khalid Toukan, head of the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission, said back in 2015. It is this susceptibility to regional events outside of its control that has been one of the motivating factors in forcing the government to begin generating more electricity within its borders.

In 2007, the government published its national energy strategy, which outlined plans to diversify its energy supplies. The document proposes that by 2020 the country will source 29% of its energy from natural gas, 14% from shale, 10% from renewable sources, and 6% from nuclear. In the same year, the government set up the Committee for Nuclear Strategy, a body tasked with delivering the government’s nuclear plans. The committee envisioned that nuclear power would produce 30% of the country’s energy by 2030.

From these plans, Jordan signed a $10 billion nuclear deal with Russian nuclear company Rosatom. The deal paved the way for the construction of two nuclear reactors in the north of the country; each capable of producing 1000 MW each.

Following the agreement, Toukan explained positioned nuclear energy as a key strategic tool for the government to lessen its dependency on hydrocarbon imports and improve the country’s energy security. “Nuclear power is definitely one of the solutions to graduate from total dependency on oil and gas,” he said.

However, more than three years later in May 2018, a Jordanian government official signaled that the original plans for the 2000 MW plant would be shelved in favor of smaller modular reactors. The anonymous source told The Jordan Times that financial issues had forced the government to scale back its initial plans. “Jordan is now focusing on small modular reactors because the large reactors place financial burden on the Kingdom and in light of the current fiscal conditions we believe it is best to focus on smaller reactors,” he told the newspaper. Jordan has only recently signed a feasibility study with Rosatom so not much is yet known about the revised plans. What is evident is that the country’s domestic energy shortages have played a crucial role in the government’s decision to develop its nuclear sector.

Towards a New Nuclear Era?

The need for energy diversification, whether to fully reap the benefits of lucrative hydrocarbon reserves through exporting, or to become more self-sufficient in providing domestic power, have led to considerable investment in nuclear energy that complement existing hydrocarbon power generation and renewable energy programs.

Although nuclear power will still constitute a fairly small proportion of the region’s energy mix, the number of initiatives over the past few years is unparalleled in the region’s history. Despite the roughly 10-year build cycle of a nuclear plant and despite the high costs of construction, MENA states are evidently beginning to see nuclear power not just as a tool for satisfying policy needs, but also perhaps as a potent statement of power in a region beset by conflicts.