Middle East embraces nuclear energy

Egypt wants to build its first nuclear power plant with help from Russia. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also building nuclear power plants. While environmentalists opposing this trend are making some gains in Jordan, the first reactor in the UAE will go on line soon. Jacob Wirtschafter reports from Cairo.

Several Middle Eastern states are planning to construct new nuclear power plants. Environmentalists would rather see renewable energy as a key part of the energy supply in this sun-rich region. (Image credit: Julian Needham/Sellafield)

Several Middle Eastern states are planning to construct new nuclear power plants. Environmentalists would rather see renewable energy as a key part of the energy supply in this sun-rich region. (Image credit: Julian Needham/Sellafield)

Nuclear power is falling out of fashion – at least in Western Europe and North America. But in the Middle East, the situation could not be more different. Egypt is now finalising a deal with Russia to build the country’s first nuclear power plant, while Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have similar plans.

Jordan strives for energy independence

Jordan imports more than 90 per cent of its energy, and is looking towards nuclear energy as the key to becoming more energy independent.

“Nuclear power is definitely one of the solutions to graduate from total dependency on oil and gas,” said Khalid Toukan, head of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, adding that Jordan spends around USD 3 billion annually on energy imports.

But Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pursuing nuclear energy despite their vast oil reserves. Analysts believe those countries want to build the expertise to develop new technologies beyond their current capacities.

This trend confounds Middle Eastern environmentalists who question the wisdom of pursuing atomic energy when the cost of renewables, especially solar power, has decreased rapidly.

“Just as nuclear loses favour in places where there are strong safety rules and politicians who understand the real costs, the industry is finding a new market in the developing world,” said Amr Gharbeia, an Egyptian environmentalist and civil rights activist.

“Our leaders are trying to build the pyramids again when what we should be doing is getting the solar technology on top of Egypt’s rooftops and making it as affordable as the satellite dishes you see in even the poorest neighbourhoods and most remote villages.”

Environmentalists want renewable

Jordan is financing 51 per cent of the estimated USD 10 billion cost of two nuclear reactors at Amra, just 60 kilometres south of the Syrian border. Rosatom, or Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, is building and financing the rest of the project.

Opponents hope a coalition Amra residents, economists and conservation groups can stop construction of the facility.

Greenpeace Mediterranean has collected 66,000 signatures for a petition against the Amra atomic plant, citing cheaper and safer renewables as well as the dangers posed to Jordan’s only fresh water aquifer nearby. Jordan has one of the lowest per capita levels of water resource availability in the world.

It would seem as though some Jordanian officials are listening to these concerns.

“Members of parliament are speaking out against these plans because renewables make more sense for the rural and low income communities furthest from the grid in the same locales where the government is currently providing the most subsidies for electricity,” said Omar Mohammad Al Shoshan, a board member at The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Amman.

“That money would be better spent supporting photo-voltaic installation and training local people to install and maintain the system.”

Agreement with Russia in sight

In Egypt, the legacy of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nuclear ambitions and an affinity towards mega projects like the Aswan Dam and Suez Canal have made it difficult for Egyptian atomic energy opponents to argue for a decentralised power grid using locally installed solar panels.

In November, Egypt initialised a memorandum of understanding with the Russians to construct the nuclear facility comprising four power units with the capacity of 1,200 MW each plant at a site at Dabaa, close to the famous WWII battlefield of El Alamein. The plant would come online in 2022.

In the UAE, plans are proceeding much faster. The Korea Electric Power Corporation is now building four Advanced Power Reactor (APR) 1, 400 MW nuclear units are currently under construction at the Barakah site in Abu Dhabi. The first one is on track to go on line next year.

Emirati engineering and physics students, in the meantime, have been sent to courses at the Korean company’s headquarters in Seoul.

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