Nuclear is all the rage these days. Barack Obama's election in the United States and the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen have sparked a global rush into nuclear energy, with countries from El Salvador to Ghana to Mongolia declaring their intention to build nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is a much cleaner (though also more expensive and potentially dangerous) form of energy than oil, gas, and coal and it can produce far more electricity than wind, solar, or hydro. The combination of these factors makes nuclear a popular option for governments seeking to wean themselves off dependence on fossil fuels.
The Middle East has not missed out on this fad. Beginning in the middle of the last decade, governments in the region abandoned their policies of striving for a nuclear-free Middle East (excepting Israel) as six countries announced their intention to build civil nuclear programs. As of today, the countries in the region that have voiced interest in establishing nuclear energy capabilities are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It is a pretty comprehensive list: the only countries that have not yet expressed interest are Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.
The question of nuclear energy in the Middle East has resurfaced again in the past weeks. The United Arab Emirates recently placed its first order for a nuclear reactor with a consortium of Korean companies, following a fierce, year-long round of bidding. Israel says it wants to build a third nuclear power plant, in conjunction with its Jordanian neighbors (though the Jordanians say the project will not move forward until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved...). Syria, too, recently reaffirmed its desire for a reactor (no one really knows whether Syria already built one with North Korea's help, only to have it destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007). Meanwhile, Egypt claims to be making progress on finding a site for its first nuclear plant.
So the region is abuzz with nuclear activity. But this article in Daedalus, part of a series on nuclear power, says that not only are most of these countries incapable of building nuclear power plants in the near future, their justifications for wanting them are also implausible.
On the feasibility point, there are two major hurdles that must be overcome before a state can buy a nuclear reactor: cost and grid capacity. The article states that in order to afford a nuclear reactor, which these days costs at least a few billion US dollars, a country must have a GDP of at least $50 billion. Then, in addition, its electricity grid must have a minimum of 10 gigawatts in order to accommodate a large reactor.
These criteria narrow the list of potential nuclear states in the region from eighteen down to five: Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria.
But the reasons these countries have given for wanting nuclear power do not hold up under scrutiny. Energy security is the most common justification. Consider the UAE, which based its plea for nuclear power on its rapidly rising electricity demand and its inability to meet this demand with natural gas imported from Qatar. A nuclear option would allow the country to be self-sufficient, with nuclear power eventually providing 25% of all electricity. Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria have all made similar arguments.
But as the Daedalus article makes clear, all of these countries have more than adequate access to fossil fuels or other sources of power within their borders, giving them the potential to produce sufficient electricity for decades to come. In Egypt, natural gas supplies could power the country for 43 years. In Turkey, vast hydro resources, if harnessed effectively, could provide just as much electricity as nuclear reactors -- potentially forever. Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, have oil and/or natural gas reserves capable of providing electricity to their people for 43, 66, and 100 years, respectively. By the time fossil fuels come close to running out, either nuclear will be so cheap that it will be easily adoptable or (more likely) there will be myriad renewable energy alternatives, especially in countries with abundant sunlight.
So why the rush into nuclear power, an expensive and politically fraught energy source, when it isn't really necessary? The article poses two answers. First, nuclear energy confers a degree of international credibility on a country, especially in the developing world. Since the 1950s, a nuclear program has been seen as a sign of a country's entry into the developed world -- this is what motivated Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Libya to seek nuclear options. A nuclear program is a mark of honor, a way of stimulating national pride -- and the rhetoric used by Middle Eastern regimes to describe their nuclear ambitions suggest that leaders will have no qualms using nuclear energy for this end.
Moreover, a nuclear program -- even for civilian purposes -- can create a certain strategic deterrent for neighboring countries, especially if the state in question develops its own enrichment capabilities. Japan, though not an officially recognized nuclear-weapon state, could probably build such a weapon within days if it wanted to. Middle Eastern states may be watching Iran's progress in its nuclear program and calculating that they, too, should probably get into the game.
A civilian program therefore provides both international credibility and a foot in the nuclear-weapons door. The important question is whether anyone -- either inside or outside the region -- would want to have the feet of eighteen Middle Eastern states eventually wedged in that door.