The Sun is essentially an enormous nuclear fusion reactor. The Earth's internal heat – geothermal energy – is from a combination of residual heat from when it was formed and constantly decaying radioactive material. Our planet is habitable primarily because of the balance of nuclear-based energy from the Sun and the Earth.
But man-made nuclear power is where some of our greatest opportunities lie, at least in the near term.
Nuclear power is currently the source of about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity. There are about 440 nuclear plants and, rather unsurprisingly, growing. Nuclear power is reliable and efficient. It is considered a base load that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, except when refuelling or maintenance is needed. It often works at more than 90 per cent of its capacity; very few energy sources get even near that. Its power can be used to produce hydrogen, ammonia and desalinated water.
Fifty-five new reactors are now being planned worldwide. Many more should be expected, given the energy and climate tensions developing in the world. About 30 countries are considering new nuclear programmes, or expanding their existing ones – including China, Egypt, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the UAE and the US.
Most of the new nuclear power plants will be in East Asia, South Asia and Russia. However, the Mena region has vast potential in some countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Because of Japan’s recent energy shocks, it is in the process of bringing back many of its nuclear power plants that were shut down after the Fukushima incident. Poland is in the process of developing a nuclear power system. Germany looks like it might shut down its plants, but whether the winter’s energy shocks change that remains to be seen. Sweden and Finland want to increase their nuclear power capacity, too.
There has always been a concern that nuclear energy is not safe, but there is no perfectly safe energy. Neither is there such a thing as truly clean energy along the entire supply chain of an energy system. But in relative terms of health and safety, nuclear power is much better than most others.
Anyone who takes long-haul flights is exposed to radioactivity. Many houses have it in their basements. Oil and gas fields have radioactivity. Watches, cell phones, fire alarms and building materials have it. Many of the foods we eat have it. Radioactivity is everywhere. And it is mostly harmless.
There have been very few major accidents and not many deaths attached to those accidents compared to the millions who die each year from air pollution and other health issues emanating from traditional fuels, notably coal, and their end uses, like burning the fuels in cars, trucks, large ships, furnaces and heaters. About 8 million people died from fossil fuel pollution in 2018 – that is 18 per cent of global deaths. Walk around Ulaanbaatar, Beijing and New Delhi in the winter, and you will see it upfront and personal. Nuclear energy produces no particulates.
One of the ways to make sure that we globally decarbonise and fight climate change in the future is to use more nuclear power to generate electricity.
Of course, the Mena region must consider the risks associated with nuclear power and the fissile materials produced in nuclear power plants that could be used to make weapons. But countries like the UAE have led the way by signing special agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US that restrict the UAE's development and use of fuel. Saudi Arabia will also be expected to ensure that the IAEA protocols and regulations are in place as they develop their programme.
Further, all Mena countries (except Israel) have ratified or acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And while it is true that Iran has breached NPT regulations and IAEA monitoring and verification, it is worth pointing out countries in the region are all members of the IAEA and are subject to their monitoring and verification efforts.
The world will watch the Mena region when more nuclear power systems are developing. The restrictions and options available to other countries will apply to Mena states, many of whom experience unique and difficult challenges, making the region a good test case for the technology. Some states, for instance, might not pass safety and security tests for the beginning of such programmes. And if they do start a nuclear system, even a research system, without some global agreement, complications are possible.
Governments in the region could consider the option of deploying small modular nuclear reactors – or SMRs. These usually have a power capacity of up to 300 megawatts per unit (standard reactors produce more than 1,000 MW of electricity), but they come with notable advantages. They can use less proliferative fuels and have passive systems for cooling and shutdowns. Some SMRs can be designed to burn the used fuel, which minimises any fissile material left over.
SMRs can be built underground, which might reduce the chances of sabotage and such. Their service and maintenance requirements are much lower than for larger reactors. Sensors and detectors can be self-contained. SMRs also require less water than traditional reactors. For countries wary about relying on loans from more powerful countries, SMRs can be built in modules that, over time, can add up to a more extensive nuclear power system.
With proper regulations, laws, supervisions and maintenance protocols in place, nuclear power – particularly from SMRs – has huge potential for the Mena region. In the long run, it can help the region improve its energy, environmental, health, water and food security systems when paired with renewable energy systems.
There are a number of options for the region’s energy mix in the future. Nuclear power could and should be a part of that.