Growth of renewables and cheaper, more versatile nuclear power will shape the future of energy use
While 56% of today’s nuclear power capacity is in North America and western Europe, the IAEA forecasts this will fall to about 25% by 2050
In the US’s Idaho National Laboratory, nuclear engineers listen with interest to progress updates on the UAE’s nuclear programme, while they work on innovative small modular reactors to be installed underground. And last week, the culmination of a thirteen-year journey, commercial electricity generation began at the Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region.
The UAE has thus become the first Arab country to generate nuclear power. Its policy was announced in 2008 and construction began in 2012.
Although the project took longer than expected, this is not unusual for nuclear plants. For a country launching its first venture, avoiding major schedule and budget overruns has been impressive. Its agreement with the US is considered as a “gold standard” to prevent non-proliferation of weapons-related technologies. When fully operational, Barakah will save about 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, more than 7 per cent of the national total.
Nuclear power generated more than 10 per cent of the world’s electricity in 2019. It was only recently overtaken by renewables as the largest low-carbon generation source after hydroelectricity. But it is not common that a new country enters the club: it requires a critical mass of electricity demand, finance, organisation and sustained commitment.
So, what is the future of nuclear power in the Middle East? In Europe and the US, nuclear generation has stagnated or declined, despite its importance in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fukushima, for example, casts a long shadow in the public imagination, even though modern reactors will not experience similar problems.
Government indecision, public opposition, atrophying engineering experience and increasingly onerous safety standards impose long construction times and cost blowouts. This has combined with the ready availability of cheap natural gas and the sharp falls in the costs of renewable energy to make new nuclear build of traditional designs economically unviable.
The technology’s future thus seems to lie in the emerging world, especially China and India. Along with the UAE and Turkey, the new aspirant nuclear-powered countries are Belarus and Bangladesh. While 56 per cent of today’s nuclear power capacity is in North America and western Europe, the International Atomic Energy Agency forecasts this will fall to about 25 per cent by 2050.
The UAE’s Energy Strategy 2050, unveiled in 2017, implies that no new nuclear reactors will be added to the four in progress. However, with the regulatory infrastructure and trained people in place, the country has the option to do more if circumstances change.
Four other Middle Eastern countries have serious nuclear power programmes. Despite some past activity in Jordan, no other regional countries look likely to join them for a long time.
By contrast to the UAE, Iran slogged through a forty-year odyssey to complete its Bushehr reactor. Begun before the 1979 Revolution with German and French help, bombed by Iraqi warplanes, picked up with Russian involvement in 1995, it finally came online in 2011. Since then, it has had various operational problems.
Tehran has various plans for other nuclear power plants, but these do not look likely to progress much with the shortages of finance and difficulties in doing business caused by US sanctions over concerns that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Nuclear power will anyway only represent a small fraction of the country’s overall generation.
Turkey is working with Russia’s state Rosatom on four reactors at Akkuyu on the southern littoral, intended to start up between 2023-26. And Rosatom was expected to begin construction of Egypt’s first power reactor, at El Dabaa on the north-west coast, in the second half of this year.
Saudi Arabia has held extensive discussions with firms from Russia, China, South Korea, France and the US on nuclear power. But it has not yet clearly defined its goals, looking at various options including large reactors, small modular reactors and nuclear-powered desalination, as well as local uranium mining. Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent comments on a fifty-fifty mix of gas and renewables by 2030 did not mention nuclear power.
Despite greater public acceptance and faster and cheaper construction, expanded nuclear power in this region faces similar challenges to elsewhere: it is large, inflexible and relatively expensive. The growth in ultra-cheap solar power will compete with nuclear in the middle of the day. As batteries fall in price, they could make a grid based on solar and nuclear more feasible by saving electricity for the early evening.
To extend its reach, nuclear power will have to become faster, cheaper and more versatile. Several advanced reactors are under development in the US, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, France and elsewhere. They are designed to be inherently safe, proliferation-resistant, cost-effective and yield low waste.
Small modular reactors are designed to be built in factories to a standard plan, bringing down costs, and would be quicker and more flexible to install. Some can be used to power desalination. ADQ, which owns the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and recently formed a joint venture with Adnoc and Mubadala, said it is looking into the possibility of producing hydrogen in this way.
The start-up of Barakah’s first reactor is almost the end of the first part of the journey. Whether nuclear power is part of the region’s future or just its present now depends on policymakers’ preferences and the industry’s ingenuity.
Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis
Published: April 18, 2021 10:30 AM