TEL AVIV, Israel -- As Western democracies re-evaluate their dependence on nuclear energy in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima plant meltdown in 2011, the Middle East is forging ahead into the atomic age. According to projections from Nuclear Energy Insider, which supplies forecasts and analysis on the nuclear energy markets in the Middle East and North Africa, about $200 billion will be spent over the next 15 years in the two regions, where a total of 37 new reactors will be built.
That possibility alarms many inside and outside the region. Nuclear power plants require huge volumes of water -- a potential drain of the scarce resource in the largely arid region, which is also riddled with seismic fault lines. Added to that are concerns about the potential for using peaceful nuclear production as a cover for manufacturing nuclear arms and the kind of environmental damage that occurred in Japan when a tsunami led to significant contamination at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which still causes problems with food and water supplies in the surrounding environment. Fukushima was the worst such event -- a Level 7, the maximum, on the International Nuclear and Radiological scale -- since the meltdown at Russia’s Chernobyl plant in 1986. Only two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors are currently in operation.
But as evidence of the increasing focus on nuclear energy in the Middle East and adjacent countries, Turkey in May signed a joint declaration awarding a Japanese-French consortium exclusive negotiating rights for a new nuclear power plant in the country. And Jordan is following suit. This month, Jordan will decide which major company -- French-Japanese consortium Areva-MHI or Russian engineering firm Atomstroyexport -- will be awarded a contract for two 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors.
“I think there’s a lot misunderstanding about the benefits and risks of nuclear power,” said Kamal Araj, the vice chairman of Jordan's Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC. “After Fukushima, I think there were a lot of small, small but very vocal opposition to the program. You know when you have an accident in Fukushima, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen in any other place.”
Such disclaimers and reassurances are subject to debate, and many in the West would argue that Fukushima does illustrate the danger of such an event elsewhere -- particularly in areas where nuclear power may not be as closely regulated. But the powers that be in the Middle East, at least, seem to agree with Araj.
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Numerous Middle Eastern countries have either announced plans to explore atomic energy or have signed nuclear cooperation agreements, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Though few in the West trust Iran, all of the countries have declared peaceful intentions for a civilian nuclear energy program, and -- aside from Iran -- cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. All have different reasons for going nuclear.
The Haves And The Have-Nots
Oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar seek civilian nuclear technology as a way to maximize profits and protect their oil supply, said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. The goal is to exploit the cheaper option of nuclear energy for internal consumption and sell their crude offshore at a premium.
Then there are countries like Jordan, which imports 95 percent of its energy at a cost of almost 25 percent of its GDP, according to governmental sources. The Jordanian government subsidizes the cost of electricity, and it pays out about $1.8 billion a year for the additional supply it needs. According to Araj, it makes better sense to take about a tenth of that sum each year and invest it in a minority share of two foreign-owned nuclear reactors on Jordanian soil at a cost of about $1.2 billion over eight years. Jordan plans to buy the electricity from the plants’ contractor at a unit price of about 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt compared to the 18 cents per kilowatt that the government pays now, reducing their dependency on oil and its fluctuating price. All of which means that Jordan will save money and create jobs, Araj said.
“During the peak of the construction, we expect it would be 5,000 jobs,” he said. “They would be probably 80 percent Jordanian jobs. Only the highly technical ones would be foreign. So for eight years, the period of construction, we’re talking about a big number of workers.”
Post-construction, he estimated that 2,000 Jordanian jobs at the reactors would remain.
A Middle East Gone Nuclear
Lindenstrauss, of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said civilian nuclear programs in the Middle East were not particularly “worrisome” in themselves. In fact, Israel has barely raised an eyebrow at the possibility of two new nuclear reactors on its eastern border. The bigger concern, she said, is the potential of civilian programs to achieve nuclear military capability covertly, such as in the case of Iran.
“The more likely candidate to try and achieve nuclear military capability if Iran breaks out with its program, would be Saudi Arabia,” she said.
In other words, if Iran secures nuclear military capability, Saudi Arabia will follow suit for its own protection. Saudi Arabia has reportedly already started site selection for 16 nuclear reactors for energy purposes, with the first scheduled for completion in 2020. According to Lindenstrauss, as the most geo-strategic and ideological rival to Iran in the region, Saudi Arabia has the motive and the means to develop nuclear military capability.
Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has conveyed its willingness to consider nuclear weapons as a way to deter and contain Iran if the international community is unsuccessful in halting the Iranian nuclear arms program. And it hasn’t conceded its right to enrich uranium on its own shores.
Turkey is also powering ahead with its civilian nuclear program, and its testy relationship with Iran could spawn a nuclear arms race, Lindenstrauss said. But without the same resources at its fingertips, Turkey is relatively constrained.
“While Turkey has put much emphasis in recent years on building its civilian nuclear capability, it still highly relies on the outside powers to build and operate these plants,” she said. That’s a key reason why Israel -- which neither confirms nor denies whether it has nuclear military capability -- doesn’t fear that Jordan’s civilian nuclear program will become militarized, despite the Hashemite Kingdom’s retaining the right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Its program simply isn’t big enough to warrant concern, and the level of foreign investment limits any ambitions in that direction.
But if Iran played its hand and revealed it had weapons-grade nuclear capability, a nuclear arms race would almost certainly ensue, Lindenstrauss said.
“Regardless of Israel's position, and Iran's threats to annihilate it, there is a basic U.S. interest in stopping Iran from achieving nuclear military capability,” she said. “If Iran reaches nuclear military capability, that would be a severe blow to the non-proliferation regime and might cause a Middle East arms race, which is likely to add another dimension of instability to an already volatile region.”
The Environmental Argument
Nuclear programs require water, and lots of it. That’s a big problem for the water-poor Middle East, said Basel Burgan, president and anti-nuclear campaigner for Jordanian Friends of the Environment.
“The nuclear lobby around the world does not give you the full facts and hides away many hidden costs that affect the cost of energy produced by nuclear energy, such as the cost of water,” Burgan said. “Because many countries, when they build, they build over huge lakes or rivers, not like in Jordan where we have to recycle water.”
Burgan said there are huge question marks hanging over Jordan’s nuclear project for that reason. Jordan’s AEC has moved the proposed site for its two reactors three times, to a location it has not yet revealed to the public, and it would need to build an enormous manmade lake in the desert to accommodate it.
There are also unanswered questions about why decision-makers in Middle Eastern regimes are choosing the nuclear path and largely ignoring the human and environmental impact when there are other safe and viable energy choices available, Burgan said.
A report by Duke University in 2010 asserted that there had been a crossover between the cost of nuclear and solar energy -- with solar energy becoming the cheaper of the two.
“We are one of the gifted countries in the world on the solar belt that goes from Morocco all the way to Saudi and Iraq” Burgan said. “The European Union is now hiring land in North Africa for its solar energy projects. So why they heck are we going to nuclear without investigating all the opportunities to use solar?”
The fear from Middle East environmentalists is that the region will become the dumping ground for the world’s nuclear waste, and that Western countries will phase out their own nuclear programs and instead buy nuclear energy from the Middle East, with the demand creating a dangerous push for supply among Middle Eastern countries.
And according to Burgan, the Middle East is not like Western democracies in which governmental checks and balances encase civilian nuclear technology in layers of safety. The risk of nuclear technology falling into the hands of terrorists is considerable, he said. “There is no transparency. Eight years and we haven’t even seen a feasibility report. Transparency, traceability of information, liability, accountability. These things do not exist in Jordan. On the day that they do exist, we can start talking about nuclear.”