Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Nuclear Programs: Feasibility and Objectives

Arab Nuclear Programs could diversify energy sources, but doubts remain due to cheaper and safer renewable energy alternatives.

Arab Nuclear Programs
View of the Dubai skyline. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In the wake of the 2011 nuclear leak in Japan’s Fukushima, several industrialized nations reconsidered their plans to expand their peaceful nuclear programs for fear of being subjected to a similar incident. In response, governments imposed strict safety and prevention measures, which subsequently increased the cost of producing electricity with nuclear energy compared to other energy sources.

Several Western countries have since been averse to relying on nuclear energy. Germany, for example, developed a long-term plan to gradually decommission all nuclear power reactors within its borders, a goal that has been accomplished as of 2023.

Similarly, other countries such as Switzerland, Spain and Belgium have drawn up plans to phase out nuclear energy within timeframes that vary according to each country’s reliance on its nuclear reactors. Japan, meanwhile, has opted to reduce the proportion of nuclear energy in its energy mix but has not committed to completely abandoning this source.

Although the Ukraine war’s impact on the energy market delayed the transition plans of certain European countries toward clean energy, the overall trend in Western energy markets continues to favor the expansion of renewable energy sources at the expense of other alternatives.

In recent years, advancements in renewable energy technologies have significantly reduced the cost of generating electricity from solar and wind energy. The cost of producing solar energy has dropped to less than 41 per cent of the cost of nuclear energy, while the cost of producing wind energy has fallen below 46 per cent of the cost of nuclear energy.

Based on data from BP, the global share of renewable energy in the energy mix is expected to rise significantly by 2050, ranging between 35 per cent and 64 per cent, depending on the pace at which countries transition away from non-renewable energy sources.

In 2019, renewable energy accounted for just 10 per cent of the global energy mix. The European Union has taken proactive measures to support this shift by approving in 2022 a support package aimed at doubling solar energy production within the bloc by 2030 and increasing the share of renewable energy sources to 45 per cent of the total energy supply across EU countries.

A different perspective in Arab countries

The stance on energy development In the Arab region is quite different. Despite the significant potential for investing in renewable energy as a viable alternative to nuclear energy, several Arab countries are keenly interested in establishing peaceful nuclear programs for the generation of electricity.

Among the Arab countries actively pursuing nuclear programs today, the most prominent are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt. It bears mentioning that in the past a number of Arab nations faced setbacks when attempting to launch nuclear programs, as exemplified by Iraq and Syria.

This situation in particular raises numerous questions regarding the historical context of these nuclear programs and the underlying motivations driving their pursuit in the Arab region. Moreover, it prompts an examination of the economic feasibility of such substantial investments compared to renewable energy alternatives.

Furthermore, it bears asking what degree of reliance on nuclear energy is expected upon the successful completion of the projects planned within these nuclear programs. These questions ultimately open to the door to looking into the identities of the countries supplying nuclear energy technology to Arab nations, as well as shedding light on the dynamics of the nuclear energy market and the key stakeholders involved.

UAE boasts the most complete nuclear program in the Arab region

The United Arab Emirates has successfully completed the most complete nuclear project to date. Over the past few years, the country has constructed four nuclear reactors at the Barakah plant, three of which are now in full commercial operation. The fourth and final reactor has passed all required tests and obtained all necessary licenses to connect it to the electricity grid, paving the way for its imminent operation.

According to UAE authorities, the four reactors will collectively meet 25 per cent of the country’s electricity needs, resulting in a reduction of 22.4 million tons of carbon emissions a year, equivalent to the emissions generated by 4.8 million cars.

The UAE launched its peaceful nuclear project in 2009, when it signed a contract with the Korean Electric Power Company to develop the Barakah nuclear power plant. The contract outlined the establishment of four nuclear reactors for energy production, with the company also responsible for assisting in their operation and management as well as training employees.

To ensure effective regulation of the sector from the outset, that same year the UAE approved the Federal Nuclear Energy Law. It also established the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation to oversee the management of nuclear power plants. This comprehensive approach has allowed the country to establish a robust framework for control, operation and construction.

Construction of the first reactor began in 2012, followed in later years by the completion of the remaining three reactors. The Barakah plant is located in the Al-Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi, along the Arabian Gulf, approximately 53 km southwest of the city of Al-Ruwais. The UAE government considers this project an integral part of its strategy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, as nuclear energy helps reduce harmful emissions.

While nuclear energy will account for a quarter of the UAE’s energy mix once the fourth reactor at the Barakah plant becomes operational, the country aims to decrease the share of nuclear energy to around 6 per cent by 2050 to align with the expansion of its investments in renewable energy.

It is worth noting that the UAE has sought to reassure all international and regional powers in regards to its nuclear program in order to avoid any potential obstacles. To achieve this goal, it has entered into agreements such as the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency, ensuring maximum transparency and compliance with the agency’s regulatory requirements.

In addition, the UAE has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Article 123 Agreement on Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation with the United States, which considers these agreements as prerequisites for engaging in nuclear cooperation with any other country.

As a result, the UAE’s nuclear energy model stands out as the most successful in the Arab region, having demonstrated the ability to launch reactors and integrate them into the electricity grid without facing obstacles from influential regional or international powers. There remain, however, significant uncertainties regarding the program’s economic feasibility.

As an oil-exporting nation, the UAE is able to produce energy at a considerably lower cost compared to nuclear energy. However, in its pursuit of reduced carbon emissions and diversified energy sources, the country possesses the financial resources and an appropriate investment environment that enables the expansion of investments in renewable energy sources.

The UAE has also undertaken significant projects in renewable energy which can be expanded further to increase their share in the UAE energy mix in the long term. As mentioned previously, the development of renewable energy technologies allows for energy generation at a lower cost and with a more favorable environmental impact than nuclear energy.

Although the UAE had signed memorandums of understanding on nuclear energy with both China and Russia, it chose to collaborate with a South Korean company for the construction, operation and management of its reactors. This decision was likely made to reassure its Western partners about the future of its nuclear program.

Importantly, the country has neither expanded its nuclear fuel production nor increased enrichment rates, effectively dispelling suspicions that its peaceful nuclear program could be utilized for the production of nuclear weapons in the future.

Saudi Arabia’s troubling nuclear program

Since 2010, Saudi Arabia has made clear its ambition to join the group of nations that produce nuclear energy, as evidenced by the establishment of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Nuclear Energy. A year later, the Kingdom announced its plan to construct 16 nuclear reactors, with an estimated budget of $80 billion. These projects, however, remained dormant due to their lack of economic feasibility, given the Kingdom’s reliance on low-cost oil derivatives.

In 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rekindled these aspirations by declaring the construction of the first low-energy research nuclear reactor in the country. Two years later, the New York Times leaked aerial photos revealing a small-scale nuclear project near the Saudi capital, Riyadh. This raised concerns within the U.S. administration about the potential collaboration between Saudi Arabia and China to develop industrial capacity for nuclear fuel production.

The Saudi nuclear program has since garnered international attention, with apprehensions arising regarding its direction. The Kingdom’s efforts to produce and enrich uranium locally, in cooperation with China, have raised concerns about the possibility of non-peaceful utilization of the nuclear program once uranium is enriched to higher levels. IAEA reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has allocated significant funds to explore uranium, while simultaneously signing cooperation agreements with China to develop its production.

Nevertheless, despite these endeavors, the Saudi nuclear program has remained modest compared to its Emirati counterpart. This could be attributed to Western suspicions surrounding Saudi nuclear ambitions, particularly due to its closer ties with China in uranium extraction and production. Since late 2022, the Kingdom has been seeking to commission the construction of its first nuclear power plant for electricity production, but the winning company for this contract has yet to be determined.

In any case, it is evident that Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions are intertwined with its concerns about Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons in the future. This explains the Saudi government’s interest in uranium extraction, production and potential enrichment, rather than relying solely on establishing facilities and procuring nuclear fuel enriched in smaller proportions, as the UAE does.

This approach, which contributes to the Saudi nuclear program’s slower pace, also raises concerns about a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East in the future.

Similar to the UAE, there are significant questions regarding the investment feasibility of constructing nuclear power plants in a country like Saudi Arabia, which is an oil-producing nation, especially when other projects for renewable energy production are already underway.

Other emerging Arab programs

Many Arab countries have expressed peaceful nuclear ambitions, but these programs remain in their early stages and are relatively modest, even after years and decades since their inception.

In early 2023, Jordan announced its preparations to construct uranium production plants for commercial purposes and revealed ongoing discussions with various investment parties interested in such projects. Although the country has four planned projects to produce energy using small nuclear reactors, none of these have yet been implemented, and no projects have been awarded.

Jordan is one of the Middle Eastern countries that are most reliant on renewable energy, with renewable sources accounting for approximately 29 per cent of its energy mix. Furthermore, although it launched its nuclear program in 1986, this has since been limited to research projects.

Egypt, on the other hand, announced in July 2022 the start of construction of its first nuclear reactor at the Dabaa plant in cooperation with the Russian company Rosatom. Egypt had initially planned to build a nuclear plant in the same location in the early 1980s, but the project was halted following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Currently, the extent to which the project has been affected by sanctions imposed on Rosatom remains unclear, considering the significant financial requirements associated with the construction and long-term operation of the facility.

Meanwhile, Morocco, which aims to produce nuclear energy by 2030, is actively seeking investment to develop local expertise for future nuclear reactor management. In October 2022, Morocco signed an agreement with Russia to establish an experimental mini nuclear reactor, with subsequent plans to establish nuclear reactors capable of producing energy on a commercial scale.

Nuclear reactors would undoubtedly enable these Arab countries to diversify their energy sources and ensure stable electricity supplies, particularly in nations experiencing power rationing such as Egypt. However, there are significant doubts regarding the current economic feasibility of these projects, especially considering the existence of less expensive and safer renewable energy alternatives.

Numerous studies indicate that nuclear energy has become the most expensive energy source compared to other available alternatives. Moreover, concerns about potential disasters resulting from accidents, like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, remain paramount.

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