The GCC’s nuclear programme started as a joint venture but has developed into a race to see which Arab country will be the first to develop atomic energy.
On March 23, the UAE became the first country to approve nuclear plans when it announced it will invest about $100 million (Dh367.3m) in an agency that would oversee the initiative.
The next day, Bahrain signed its own deal with the United States to co-operate on civil nuclear power in an agreement the US State Department held out as a model for nations to meet their energy needs, cut their greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the spread of sensitive atomic technology.
The UAE has opted to ask French companies to help develop its nuclear infrastructure. Total, Suez and Areva have expressed an interest in joining forces to develop plans for two new-generation nuclear reactors that could be up and running by 2016.
Both Bahrain and the UAE said they would not seek sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technologies and would buy fuel on the international market, reducing the possibility of obtaining the technology to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
“This stands in direct contrast to Iran’s nuclear activities,” the US State Department said in a statement announcing the agreement signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.
US officials described the agreement as “a tangible expression of the United States’ desire to co-operate with states in the Middle East, and elsewhere, that want to develop peaceful nuclear power in a manner consistent with the highest standards of safety, security and nonproliferation”.
According to a memo submitted by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s move represents an “environmentally promising and commercially competitive option that could make a significant contribution to the UAE’s economy and future energy security”.
Sheikh Abdullah said full details would be published to maintain “absolute transparency” in the international community, adding an awareness campaign would be launched to inform UAE citizens about the plan.
WAKE UP CALL
“I can see that any programme in an Arab country will be under international supervision. This is the reason why the US have no problem and they raised no objection,” Mustafa Alani, political analyst at the Gulf Research Centre, told Emirates Business.
The process stands in stark contrast to perceptions of Iran’s proposed nuclear energy programme. The US accuses Iran of seeking to perfect the process of uranium enrichment so as to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying it wants nuclear power to fuel its economy.
Iran holds the second largest reserves of gas in the world but due to economic sanctions and lack of investment, the Opec-member has to import gas.
“Legally, all countries have a right to acquire nuclear technology. The question, however, is who is going to supply the facilities,” Alani said, adding that GCC countries have pledged to buy from the international markets in contrast to Iran, which keeps its programme a secret.
“The second consideration is cost because the initial cost is billions,” Alani said. “And, if you want to develop nuclear [energy] legally, it’s a long way to get the licence, supervision, and all the environmental requirements. In the case of the GCC, the legality of their programme is very high.”
Arabs have neglected the nuclear option for the past 40 to 50 years, he said, with Israel pioneering its programme in the1950s, followed by the Iranians in the late 1960s.
“Some Arab nations have had their own nuclear programme – Iraq and Egypt mainly – but for political reasons they abandoned the programme,” Alani said.
“Now the Arabs see that there is a huge technological gap between them and their neighbours and it is a wake up call for them. Now you see a joint move among Arab states to call for nuclear [energy]. But nuclear power will only be their secondary option because their priority is still oil and gas.”
Another major reason to develop a nuclear programme, analysts say, is the dwindling production of gas in the region. All the GCC countries, except Qatar, have been reeling from the pain of the gas shortage.
Gas is the main feedstock of the region’s power and desalination plants. And with the increasing price due to scarcity, some countries have had no option but to resort to using oil, which is not only costlier but dirtier.
The UAE is tight-lipped on the gas issue but the Bahraini Government has said in a statement that the move to develop nuclear energy capacity had become a necessity for Bahrain and other countries due to the scarcity of natural gas. This challenge is particularly acute for Bahrain, as its reserves of oil are dwindling fast, despite massive investments to enhance output. The kingdom now has to import nearly all of the natural gas it requires to fire its power stations.
Abdulmajeed Habib Abdulkarim, a senior adviser to Bahrain’s Electricity and Water Authority, said the broader terms of the strategy had been set out at the Cairo meeting of the Arab League, with the finer details to be hammered out this month.
“The depleting resources of natural gas used for electricity generation are prompting Arab countries to look at alternative energy resources like nuclear power,” he told local press. “Bahrain will support a joint Gulf programme in this connection, and details will be worked out soon.”
But the nuclear debate still rages on. During the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, the debate heated up when two major adversaries locked horns during the Future Energy Policy and Strategy forum.
Barbara Thomas Judge, the current chair of the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Authority and a keen proponent of nuclear energy, began by stating nuclear energy was something of an anathema. “However,” she said, “things change.”
Judge, by her own admission, once protested against the use of nuclear power as a means of power provision. But she was in Abu Dhabi to deliver the clear message that nuclear power was an extremely viable option for future energy solutions in the GCC region. “We need more energy for domestic consumption and we need to build more nuclear power stations. The UAE is sitting in a place with a centralised government looking for the best life for its people,” said Judge, as quoted by Future Fuels.
And in a sign of accelerating regional interest in nuclear power, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had earlier signed an agreement enabling Total, the French oil company, to join forces with reactor-designer Areva and utility company Suez to build power stations in the UAE.
The establishment of commercial power reactors in the Middle East would be a new step for the nuclear industry. At the moment, Egypt and Israel are among the only countries in the region operating nuclear research reactors for activities like medical research and desalination. Iran has a nuclear power reactor under construction at Bushehr using Russian technology.
Judge was clear to state nuclear power is not the universal panacea for the GCC, nor the world, however, “it is part of the mix and bouquet of one of the world’s most pressing problems”. Furthermore, she added, “naysayers aren’t helping the problem” – a comment shot across the bows of Gerd Leipold.
Leipold is the international executive director of Greenpeace International, and a vociferous nuclear sceptic. Greenpeace has fought against nuclear power because, in the environmental NGO’s belief, it poses “an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity”, and “the only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants”.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: “There are now dozens of studies by government and energy industry bodies showing how this scale of electricity generation could be met through different, cleaner alternatives, including combined heat and power, using fossil fuels more efficiently, and renewable electricity generation such as wind, wave and tidal power.”
Despite the debate, GCC states appear committed to the technology and the biggest question will be not if they will obtain nuclear power, but who will get there first.
The Gulf is going nuclear