Nuclear power in the Middle East-where and when?

12 August 2011

With the renewal of attention paid to nuclear power in recent years, the question has arisen of whether there will be commercial reactors starting up in new countries, beyond the 30 or so that already have commercial nuclear power. One big issue is that emerging nuclear nations lack a strong cadre of nuclear engineers and scientists, so plant construction is likely to be on a turnkey basis, with the reactor vendor assuming all technical and commercial risks in delivering a functioning plant on time and at a particular price. Alternatively the vendor may be set up a consortium to build, own and operate the plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that over new 60 countries have expressed strong interest in nuclear power and in response, it has published a small book Considerations to Launch a Nuclear Power Programme (2007). This very neatly addresses the issues involved in a country deciding upon and implementing a programme. In particular it looks at those considerations before a decision is made, before construction starts, and then subsequently as the reactor enters operation. The IAEA sets out a phased ‘milestone’ approach to establishing nuclear power capacity in new countries, applying it to 19 issues, such as establishing a credible nuclear regulatory authority, achieving financing, ensuring education and training for the workforce and compliance with international non-proliferation norms. IAEA also offers Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) missions to assess national developments.

Even a cursory examination of the IAEA work demonstrates that establishing a nuclear power programme is very challenging. The necessary time scales are lengthy and it is generally accepted that nearly all the new reactors brought into operation in the period to 2020 will be in the existing nuclear countries. Beyond then, there are naturally much better chances in a wider number of countries. The Middle East and South East Asia are the two regions of the world where the chances of establishing new nuclear programmes would seem to be the best. It is therefore worthwhile to look at where progress is most likely to be made; this month considers the Middle East.

One Middle Eastern country, Iran, is actually now very close to commissioning its first reactor. Three-quarters of its electricity currently comes from gas, 15% from oil and 10% from hydro, but in the mid-1970s, construction of two 1,200 MW PWR units was started at Bushehr by Siemens KWU. In 1979 this was suspended during the Islamic Revolution but in 1994, Russia’s Minatom and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) agreed to complete unit 1 of Bushehr nuclear power plant with a VVER-1000 unit, using much of the existing infrastructure. This long-awaited 915 MWe plant is nearing completion and is expected to begin operation in 2011.

Iran’s nuclear programme has, however, become mired in controversy owing to its uranium enrichment activities. In November 2007, it announced that the initial target of 3000 centrifuges had been reached; evidently with 18 cascades operating. This programme is heavily censured by the United Nations and attracted stiff economic sanctions, since no commercial purpose is evident, as agreements were signed in 2005 covering both supply of fresh fuel for the new Bushehr nuclear reactor and its return to Russia after use. The Russian agreement means that Iran’s nuclear fuel supply is secured for the foreseeable future, removing any justification for enrichment locally. Atomstroyexport delivered the first of 163 fuel assemblies for the initial core of Bushehr in December 2007. The fuel is enriched to 3.62% or less and is under full international safeguards.

Beyond Iran, the Gulf States are the most likely hosts of future reactors in the Middle East. The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Oman – have been studying possible nuclear programmes for about five years now. Together they have total installed capacity of about 80 GW with a common grid, all fossil fuel based. Electricity demand growth is rapid, in the 5-7% per annum range and there is also a large demand for desalination, currently fuelled by oil and gas. 

The UAE has taken the lead and, as recommended by the IAEA, established a Nuclear Energy Programme Implementation Organization which has set up the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) as a public entity, to evaluate and implement nuclear power plans within UAE. They invited expressions of interest from nine companies for construction of its first nuclear power plant and reduced this to a short list of three, seeking bids by mid 2009. In December 2009 ENEC announced that it had selected a bid from a Korean-led consortium for four APR-1400 reactors. The value of the contract for the construction, commissioning and fuel loads for four units is about US$20 billion, with a high percentage of the contract being offered under a fixed-price arrangement. By 2020, the UAE hopes to have four reactors running and producing electricity at one quarter the cost of electricity from gas. The site selected is at Braka near Abu Dhabi, with construction of unit 1 scheduled to begin late in 2012 with commercial operation envisaged in 2017.

Although part of UAE, Dubai is considering its own nuclear power possibilities, separate from the Braka plant. In 2009 it set up a Supreme Council of Energy as an independent legal entity, whose task is to oversee all matters relating to Dubai’s energy sector. Nevertheless, the economic giant in the GCC is Saudi Arabia, where electricity production is currently split roughly 50/50 between oil and gas, with demand growing by 8% per annum. In April 2010 a royal decree said, “The development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom’s growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources.” The King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) is being set up in Riyadh to advance this agenda and to be the competent agency for treaties on nuclear energy signed by the Kingdom.  Vendors and engineering companies from around the world are lining up, in the expectation that Saudi Arabia will have a large programme in place by 2020.

Elsewhere in the GCC, Kuwait is considering its own nuclear programme for power and water, and in 2009 set up a national nuclear energy commission in cooperation with the IAEA. Most of Kuwait’s electricity production is from oil and it has 11 GW of capacity, expected to grow to 25 GW by 2030. In December 2010 the Kuwait Investment Authority agreed to take EUR 600 million of equity (4.8%) in Areva and, in addition to France, Kuwait also has nuclear cooperation agreements with USA, Russia and Japan. It has announced an intention to build four 1000 MW nuclear power reactors by 2022.

A big advantage of the GCC countries is that they have ready access to finance. Other possible new nuclear countries in the Middle East are a lot poorer, without strong oil and gas revenues. Although news of possible nuclear plants in such countries attracts a lot of column inches, the plans lack a certain degree of credibility.

Jordan is typical and has only 2.5 GW of current generating capacity. Its Committee for Nuclear Strategy has set out a programme for nuclear power to provide 30% of electricity by 2030 or 2040, and to provide for exports. The nuclear law has now established the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Commission (JNRC), including radiation protection and environmental roles. One issue in Jordan is that site options with seawater cooling are limited to 30 kilometres of Red Sea coast near Aqaba but in late 2010, the proposed site for the first reactor became Majdal in northern Al Mafraq province, about 40 km north of Amman, due to better seismic characteristics. Cooling water will come from a municipal wastewater treatment plant.

In May 2010 three vendors and designs were short-listed by JAEC, the Atmea-1 from Areva-MHI, AECL’s EC6 and the AES-92 from Atomstroyexport. JAEC sought specific proposals from the three vendors in January 2011 for one or two units on a turnkey basis, and aims to make a decision within a few months. It expects to start building the plant in 2013 for operation by 2020 and a second one for operation by 2025. Longer-term, four nuclear reactors are envisaged, with further nuclear projects also involving desalination. The country has uranium resources of 140,000 tU plus another 59,000 tU in phosphate deposits, and plans to mine these have been announced by the government.

Egypt has had an interest in nuclear power for decades and set up its Atomic Energy Commission in 1955. Electricity generating capacity is 18 GW with 72% coming from gas, 16% from oil and 11% from hydro. In common with elsewhere in the region, demand growth is currently rapid at about 7% per annum, but Egypt’s gas resources are expected to be severely depleted in 20 years.

There were many ambitious plans for nuclear power in Egypt in the period from the 1960s to the 1990s, but they came to nothing. By 2000, feasibility studies were concentrating on a cogeneration plant for electricity and desalination. New nuclear cooperation agreements were signed with Russia in 2004 and 2008, reviving Egypt’s plans for a nuclear power and desalination plant, to be supported by Rosatom. In June 2009, the engineering company Worley Parsons signed a contract with the Nuclear Power Plant Authority for $160 million over 8 years to support the establishment of a 1200 MWe nuclear plant. Early in 2010 the proposal had expanded to four plants by 2025, the first being on line in 2019, which is expected to cost about US$ 4 billion.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel has a 5 MW research reactor at Nahal Soreq near Tel Aviv under IAEA safeguards and another 70 MW French-built heavy water reactor at Dimona in the Negev, which is understood to have been used for military plutonium production. Israel is one of three significant countries which have never been part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so any supply of nuclear equipment or fuel from outside the country would be severely constrained. But unlike India and Pakistan, Israel has had no civil nuclear power programme. Electricity production is 60% from coal and 40% from gas. In the 1980s the state-owned Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) set aside a site in the southern Negev at Shivta for a nuclear power plant, and discussions were held with France regarding equipment. The question was raised again in 2007 by the National Infrastuctures Ministry and Atomic Energy Commission. A twin reactor nuclear plant of 1200-1500 MWe under IAEA safeguards is now envisaged for the site by 2020. 

On the less likely end of the scale for commercial nuclear power, Syria had plans in the 1980s to build a VVER-440 reactor but abandoned these after the Chernobyl accident and due to the collapse of Soviet Union. With escalating oil and gas prices, nuclear power is now being considered again, and Russia has offered to help. Over 2001-7, Syria built at a remote location what appeared to be a gas-cooled reactor similar to the plutonium production unit at Yongbyong in North Korea. This was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007 and the remains then demolished. The project was clandestine and apparently in breach of Syria’s obligations under the NPT.

Realistically, it is hard to see operating nuclear reactors in place by 2020 in any countries in the Middle East outside Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with Kuwait the next possibility. Beyond 2020, the chances depend on continued economic progress in the other countries, together with a greater degree of political stability than has recently been experienced.

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