Gulf states add nuclear power to energy mix as net-zero goals loom

After the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait is also considering nuclear energy capabilities

The Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Abu Dhabi Media Office
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Oil-rich Gulf countries are exploring all forms of nuclear energy, from building conventional plants to meet domestic power demand, to using smaller reactors for desalination, and even investing in the supply chain.

The dual pressures of the energy crisis and the pursuit of net-zero emissions have sparked a revival in nuclear power generation worldwide. Governments that backed away from nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan are now re-evaluating its benefits.

The UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant, first announced in 2008, is set to become fully operational this year, meeting a quarter of the UAE's electricity needs. Last month, Reuters reported that the Emirates was preparing to issue a tender for the construction of a second nuclear power plant.

The state-owned Emirates Nuclear Energy Company (Enec) has also been in talks to become an investor in European nuclear power assets, including those in the UK, the agency reported in March.

“As we look ahead, Enec is focused on exploring opportunities in the UAE and overseas to capitalise on the upcoming growth of nuclear energy projects worldwide, and maximise the full value of the expertise developed in nuclear mega project programme delivery and technology deployment, subject to confirmed demand and approvals,” Mohamed Al Hammadi, the company's chief executive and managing director told The National this week.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is preparing bids to build several nuclear power plants in the country. An Argentine company completed the construction of a nuclear research reactor in the kingdom last year.

“Other countries are also exploring the possibility of moving in that direction, perhaps not in such a big way, but with small modular reactors or smaller reactors for desalination,” Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency told The National in an interview last month.

“We certainly see Gulf countries moving into nuclear and, in a wider sense, [it is happening] in the Arab world,” Mr Grossi said.

Nuclear energy plans

Outside of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries such as Kuwait are still considering nuclear energy capabilities.

Last year, the IAEA completed a mission to assess Kuwait's national nuclear security framework. The UN agency compared Kuwait's legal and regulatory framework, systems and practices for nuclear security to international standards and guidelines, particularly focusing on the security of radioactive sources.

This came a year after the IAEA hosted a meeting with representatives from Kuwait to assist the country in finalising its draft national nuclear law.

But the process could take some time.

“[Apart from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia], I don't see any other GCC countries looking at deploying … nuclear seriously in the next five years,” David Haboubi, head of nuclear and net zero energy for Middle East and Africa at AtkinsRealis, told The National.

“We actually thought Kuwait would be the first one to build, but policies changed [after] Fukushima and they went [on] a different path,” he added.

In 2009, the country initiated the formation of a national nuclear energy commission in partnership with the IAEA.

The following year, Kuwait signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with France that encompassed a range of civil nuclear energy uses, including electricity generation, water desalination and medical applications.

The Kuwait Investment Authority, the country's sovereign wealth fund, also committed to a €600 million ($653 million) equity stake in Areva but sold its shares in the French nuclear reactor manufacturer at a steep loss in 2017.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred in 2011 after a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, heightened safety concerns surrounding nuclear power plants, leading to increased scrutiny and regulatory measures.

The disaster also resulted in a shift in public opinion towards nuclear energy, with many people becoming more wary of its risks. This led to increased opposition to nuclear projects and policies in some countries.

“[Kuwait] is the first Gulf state to build education and technical capacity in the nuclear field. However, managing public opinion will continue to be a challenge,” said Amnah Ibraheem, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East.

Oman has also explored nuclear energy options in the past and, in 2009, became a member of the US-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, while also entering into a nuclear co-operation agreement with Russia.

“Oman is still sitting on the fence … though there was interest at the Ministry of Energy level. But it’s looking at all options,” Mr Haboubi said.

Qatar has also been investing in the technology, although there are no immediate plans to build local capacity.

In 2019, the Qatar Investment Authority announced an investment of £85 million for a 10 per cent stake in a UK government-backed project that aims to develop small nuclear power plants, each capable of powering one million homes.

“I don’t know if this means they [Qatar] hope to adopt this technology in the future but there’s clearly interest in the field,” Ms Ibraheem told The National.

“Bahrain is likely to adopt an SMR [small module reactor] once this becomes both financially feasible and commercially available,” she added.

An SMR is a type of nuclear reactor that is smaller in size and capacity compared to traditional large-scale nuclear reactors. These small reactors can be built in factories and then transported to their intended location for assembly.

“They are also more ideal for smaller states, and based on the reactor model, can be utilised for a diverse set of industrial applications at a lower cost relative to a traditional large scale reactor unit,” Ms Ibraheem said.

“However, as they have not been commercially deployed yet, we don’t know the reality of their market price and actual costs of deployment.”

In energy-starved Jordan, the nuclear energy strategy has mostly shifted from large reactors to SMRs due to cost concerns and the need for a more flexible energy solution.

The Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, which in 2013 announced a plan to build several small reactors of about 180 megawatt-electric capacity, has signed SMR co-operation agreements with the China National Nuclear Corporation, Rosatom, NuScale, Rolls-Royce and X-energy.

The SMR project pipeline reached 22 gigawatts in the first quarter of 2024, an expansion of 65 per cent since 2021, according to Wood Mackenzie.

About 58 per cent of all planned or proposed SMR projects globally are being driven by five countries – the US, Poland, Canada, the UK, and South Korea, the consultancy said in a report this month.

Egypt's ambitions

In the broader Mena region, Egypt is building El Dabaa nuclear power plant, which is being constructed by Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, at a reported cost of $30 billion.

However, recent sanctions on Russian companies and industries have raised concerns about Moscow's ability to complete its projects in other countries.

Earlier this month, the US issued sanctions on hundreds of people and companies linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The sanctions were also aimed at subsidiaries of Rosatom.

Rosatom told The National in May that it would continue with construction of El Dabaa.

“Our priorities are to fulfil contractual obligations and preserve partnership relations with our customers,” a company representative said.

“International co-operation on mutually beneficial and transparent market conditions, a pragmatic and balanced approach play a crucial role for the implementation of ambitious nuclear development programmes during the current global energy transition.”

Washington will also ban imported Russian uranium starting on August 11. Russia controls about half of the global supply of enriched uranium and supplies about 25 per cent of the enriched uranium used as fuel in the US's 94 nuclear reactors.

The US ban on Russia's uranium exports shows how the nuclear energy sector often has to grapple with navigating geopolitical pressures.

Building and maintaining nuclear power plants requires a high level of scientific and engineering expertise, which not all countries possess.

“For a country to independently go and design their own reactor is probably a stretch too far. You will be reliant on overseas technology, if you're seriously considering a programme that can be built within 10 to 15 years,” Mr Haboubi said.

Initially, the country would rely on international technology, which always involves geopolitical considerations, the nuclear energy expert said.

“These are not just buy a plant and then hand the keys over. You have to rely on that country and its services and skills for the duration of the plant, including the provision of things like nuclear fuel and, potentially, waste management,” he said.

US-China rivalry

In the Middle East, competition has intensified between the US and China to develop Saudi Arabia's nuclear programme.

China conducted the first successful geological surveys in Saudi Arabia to assess its uranium deposits, worked on uranium extraction projects in the country and was considered a front-runner in the construction of Saudi Arabia's first nuclear power plant.

However, recent media reports suggest that Washington and Riyadh could be close to a nuclear pact.

Experts say that the kingdom would face higher costs and greater pressure to comply with international nuclear non-proliferation standards if it co-operates with the US, compared to working with China.

Saudi Arabia would probably need to agree to the IAEA's Additional Protocol, which involves more rigorous inspections and monitoring of its nuclear activities, along with the comprehensive protection agreement that ensures nuclear materials are not diverted to weapons programmes, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a research article in November.

“The fact that China has already provided assistance locating and mining uranium indicates that it would permit a civilian Saudi nuclear programme to develop uranium mining, milling and enrichment capabilities,” the report said.

“The US, by contrast, is unlikely to allow Saudi Arabia to acquire enrichment or reprocessing capabilities due to its long-standing policies regarding nuclear non-proliferation.”

Co-operation between Riyadh and the US over nuclear issues will also be undermined by tension related to the Gaza-Israel war, the report added.

Updated: June 01, 2024, 6:03 AM