11 September 2023
The nuclear players in the Arab world
Published online 23 April 2013
Four Arab countries have their eyes set on using nuclear energy to generate electricity, but various hurdles may slow their programmes.
As the MENA Nuclear Energy Summit progresses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we assess what countries in the Arab-speaking world are likely to bring to the table. Four major players in the region: Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, harbour serious ambitions for developing nuclear power, but how have logistic and political obstacles thwarted progress?
Jordan's nuclear ambitions gained significant momentum when a major uranium deposit was discovered in 2007 after the government contracted the French energy firm AREVA in January 2009 to scour the desert for thousands of metric tonnes of uranium. The 65,000-ton discovery is ranked the world's 11th largest deposit.
At first glance, nuclear power seems a good solution to Jordan's most pressing problems: the country imports about 96% of its energy and is the world's fourth most water-insecure country. According to the most ambitious plans circulated by the government, by 2030 it could be completely self-sufficient and energy independent – possibly even exporting surplus production – and use nuclear energy to power desalinization plants for fresh water.
Under such a plan, the country would have five reactors (starting with an already-functioning 5-megawatt (MW) research reactor that could be upgraded to 10 MW), built and managed by a consortium comprising three companies from France, Russia and Japan.
In August 2009 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted a review mission for Jordan, concluding that the country "has made significant progress in its preparation for nuclear power". The Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) also expressed its desire for nuclear energy in a pre-feasibility report submitted to the IAEA mission, writing: "There is strong commitment in Jordan to go to nuclear power."
But when the contract with AREVA was not renewed in August 2012, serious doubts emerged. Just months before AREVA's mining agreement expired, the parliament ordered JAEC to stop all work until a feasibility study was complete. Rumours have persisted that AREVA wanted out of the deal because of the uranium's poor quality. The company released a statement saying the government's decision was with the "mutual consent of all parties".
Since then, another firm, the Jordan French Uranium Mining Company, has stepped in. The head of JAEC, Khaled Toukan, declared in March that previous estimates of uranium had been low and said an Australian auditor was conducting chemical analyses to prove its quality. The uranium has to be used or sold, or the many entities set up for atomic energy will run out of money.
Only a day after Toukan's announcement, the government said that as part of its austerity program, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was to be merged with the Electricity Regulatory Commission. Both JAEC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ignored repeated requests for interviews.
Continued instability in Iraq and a civil war in Syria are posing a security concern, especially since Jordan's primary nuclear research institution, Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST), is only about 15 kilometres from the Syrian border in the city of Ramtha.
Residents near the university have also been protesting the government's appropriation of their land for JUST, and last July vandals destroyed the university's nuclear facilities. A coalition of critics including scientists, NGOs, environmentalists and academics say that dissenting voices have been pushed aside, and that influential figures have convinced the king to continue nuclear projects, despite doubts.
"To this minute, we have no feasibility study, which is ridiculous," said Basel Borgan, a Jordanian pharmacist who campaigns and has written books against nuclear power. "It's obvious we have a huge lobby and there's so much corruption."
While Borgan stands opposed to nuclear energy and in favour of renewable sources like wind and solar, he also points to Jordan's lack of water – without which the cooling of nuclear reactors in the desert will prove impossible.
There is no solution other than nuclear power if we are to keep up with growth and the huge demand for electric power.
In his election campaign, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi promised voters: "As soon as I set foot in the presidential palace, the nuclear programme will be the first agenda I will address."
Although previous Egyptian presidents, beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, acknowledged the importance of nuclear energy in solving the energy crisis, the program has been beset by delay. The most recent setback was the Ministry of Electricity's decision to halt an international tender to build nuclear reactors in Dabaa - 296 km northeast of Cairo - until the formation of a new parliament.
With the recent change of Egyptian presidents, there has been no change to the Egyptian nuclear programme, which has an initial aim of four nuclear power plants to generate electricity with a total capacity of 4,000 MW by 2025. A second phase would see another four reactors built.
The Ministry of Electricity's new tender conditions are awaiting approval by an (as yet undecided) parliament. It wants to set up a safer second-generation reactor in Dabaa area, with a contribution to its construction coming from the Egyptian industry being no less than 25%.
The Dabaa project site is based on a 1981 presidential decree, which allocated the land for the construction of nuclear plants based on studies carried out by Egyptian authorities in cooperation with international consultancy firms and experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition to lengthy delays, the Dabaa site has been vandalised and equipment stolen. Aktham Abul-Ela, deputy minister of electricity, called the project "unlucky".
According to Fouad Said, director of the Dabaa project site, losses were estimated to be around three billion Egyptian pounds (US$433 million). Further losses included damage to a building specifically constructed to train nuclear scientists. Other infrastructures, including a meteorological tower and seawater desalination unit, have also been subjected to theft.
Other political priorities are also detracting from progress and security at Dabaa. Abul-Ela explained, "Morsi is very interested in the nuclear program, but now he has priorities that have been strongly imposed on him. However, there is no solution other than nuclear power if we are to keep up with growth and the huge demand for electric power."
In the face of these challenges, Abdullah Hilal, chairman's assistant of the Nuclear Power Plant Authority and board member of the Syndicate of Scientists, says that all relevant parties are fully prepared to start work, provided there is a political will to restart the programme. He also revised reactor construction estimates from 10 years to between four and seven years.
In his recent visit to Russia, President Morsi invited the country to resume its joint nuclear programme with Egypt to build nuclear reactors, as well as help develop Egyptian uranium deposits, according to RT News.
With capital from its oil reserves and an acute water shortage, Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries with a strong vested interest and capacity to fund nuclear power plants. Waleed Hussain Al-Faraj, vice president of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, said the Kingdom plans to meet 20% of its energy needs using nuclear power by 2030, or 17 GW, by building 16 reactors at an estimated cost of US$80 billion.
Several foreign companies have expressed interest in building plants and a party of Japanese officials visited the Kingdom in February 2013, about two weeks after IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano visited Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz to discuss nuclear energy plans. France, South Korea and China have already signed nuclear cooperation pacts with Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the United States, Britain and Russia are also reportedly trying to sign a deal.
The country's nuclear ambitions are linked to plans to double energy production and substantially increase desalinization to meet its water needs. The country's water reserves, from ancient aquifers, are critically low.
Saudi Arabia's state press agency reported in February that the world's largest desalinization plant would be constructed there by the end of the decade. It will have the capacity to produce 219 million cubic metres of water per year, or about nine times the 24 million cubic meters the entire country produced in 2010. In 2009, statistics showed desalinization used 4.4% of the 38.6 GW generated in the country, so its increased water production is going to account for a significant amount of increased energy demand.
The Kingdom is currently incapable of producing nuclear energy and independent capacity could be years away. However, investment in research facilities such as the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) shows the country is serious about achieving technical expertise in the near future.
The United Arab Emirates
We have conducted our assessment and can establish that there will be no effect on the desalinated water used.
The hosts of the summit established the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) in 2009 to develop a civil nuclear programme to meet the country's growing energy demands. It is the first country in 27 years to start a domestic nuclear industry, with construction beginning on its first nuclear power plant.
Four nuclear reactors will be built at the coastal site of Baraka, 300km west of the capital, Abu Dhabi. The UAE aims to start delivering nuclear energy by 2017 and complete the project by 2020.
Government studies reveal that the country's annual peak demand for electricity is expected to rise to more than 40,000 MW by 2020. Current facilities can meet only half of the demand. The ENEC claims that relying on renewable and other alternative energy supplies, while desirable, would only supply 6% to 7% of energy demands by 2020.
The UAE signed a US$20 billion contract with a South Korean company called Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), which is expected to design the country's first four APR1400 reactors. The ENEC poured the first nuclear safety-related concrete at the Barakah Nuclear Facility in July 2012, after being licenced by the country's regulatory authority (FANR).
To sidestep concerns over its ambitions, the UAE government will buy nuclear fuel directly from companies and countries through the nuclear market, rather than enriching or reprocessing uranium domestically.
Meanwhile, the UAE is hosting public forums to develop an understanding within communities to address concerns. At one such forum held last year, Maha Aziz, the manager of nuclear facilities at FANR, said studies showed that the water supply would not be affected by the construction of nuclear plants.
"We have conducted our assessment and can establish that there will be no effect on the desalinated water used at the Shuweihat plant because it will be approximately 40 Km from the site," Aziz said.
However, the ENEC is yet to present to FANR results of an assessment on the possible effects on marine life. Many are also concerned about the possibility of radiation fallout after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. In response, William Travers, director general of FANR, said that the UAE is developing an emergency response plan with all involved parties in the region.