Oil Rich Nations Embrace Nuclear Power

The Iranian atomic program grabs the majority of the headlines about nuclear work in the Middle East. However, flying somewhat beneath the radar have been efforts by many other states in the region to set up their own nuclear energy programs. Last week the Obama administration announced that it intends to restart talks with Saudi Arabia about nuclear cooperation. The United Arab Emirates and U.S. governments already signed a similar pact in 2009 and the UAE government has awarded a contract worth up to $40 billion to a Korean company to design, build and operate four nuclear power plants. The entire Gulf Cooperation Council has been looking into ways Arab Gulf countries might cooperate on nuclear power since 2006.

So why would the most oil rich countries in the world invest in nuclear power generation? To some degree, they are looking at atomic energy for the same reasons they are investing heavily in other forms of alternative energy such as solar. All the GCC countries are experiencing rapid population growth and an even greater expansion of domestic demand for electricity. Every barrel of oil used for domestic consumption is a barrel that cannot be exported. Nuclear has an advantage over other forms of alternative energy in that it can be rapidly scaled. A UAE government study found that energy consumption in that country is expected to grow 9% annually for the foreseeable future and renewables like solar are only likely to be able to meet about 7% of total demand by 2020.

Of course, nuclear energy in the Middle East also has an important geo-political component. Senior royal Prince Turki al-Faisal has implied that if Iran gets the bomb Saudi Arabia may try to develop their own nuclear weapons, although other Saudi officials later stated his position did not represent official policy. Some analysts worry that Arab Gulf countries nuclear energy programs may allow  them to develop a breakout nuclear weapons capability, giving them the capacity to quickly build an atomic bomb if they decide they need one without triggering international condemnation in the short run. The U.S. is seeking nuclear cooperation agreements with these countries to demonstrate to the international community that America is not against peaceful uses of atomic energy allowed under the non-proliferation treaty and to counter the Iranian narrative.

It is ironic to remember that Iran and Pakistan were the first countries that the U.S. supported in obtaining nuclear technology through its Atom’s for Peace Program during the 1950s and 60s. The aim of the program, launched by President Eisenhower, was to demonstrate the positive role nuclear technology could play in the world through energy and medicine after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Envisioning a time when petroleum would run out, the Shah of Iran invited American Machine Foundry to build the first Iranian nuclear reactor. This cooperation ended with the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic.

It will be interesting to see what happens as these programs in the Gulf evolve. Most of the countries of the GCC (with the notable exception of Kuwait) are continuing to invest in nuclear energy as other countries retreat from it for safety reasons. The highly concentrated populations and desert geographies of the Gulf countries could make a nuclear disaster in a place like Qatar even more devastating than it has been in Japan. If Iran develops the nuclear bomb, it is unclear whether the U.S. would become more wary or more supportive of Arab nuclear ambitions. Ideas on Energy will be following this issue closely and reporting more as it develops.

An Energy Prize From the Middle East

Competitions with cash prizes are increasingly being seen by philanthropies, businesses, and governments as a way to spur innovation towards social goals.  This trend is moving out of the U.S. and Europe to other parts of the world.  Today the Zayed Future Energy Prize, based in Abu Dhabi, has announced the top six finalists to compete for the 2011 Prize.  It might seem strange that an oil rich state in the Gulf is focused on promoting alternative energy but Abu Dhabi has been particularly forward looking in thinking about the future of energy.  Abu Dhabi is home to Masdar City, a $22 billion planned community that is aiming to be carbon neutral and serve as a hub for renewable energy and clean technology companies.

According to the organization’s website, “This annual award celebrates achievements that reflect innovation, long-term vision and leadership in renewable energy and sustainability.”  The winner will receive $1.5 million and two runner ups will get $350,000.  The finalists are:

Amory B. Lovins, the Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, for his work on “integrative design” for energy efficient buildings. Lovins describes “integrative design” as a powerful and globally applicable new tool for shifting rapidly from oil and coal to efficiency and renewables.

Barefoot College, the only fully solar electrified College in India, for training woman in rural areas to contribute to solar energy development. The college believes the very poor have every right to have access to, control, and manage and own the most sophisticated of technologies to improve their own lives.

E+Co, an investment company based in New Jersey, for its pioneering clean energy investments in the developing world. E+Co supports and invests in small and growing clean energy enterprises in developing countries that impact climate change and energy poverty.

First Solar, solar modules manufacturer based in Arizona, for its commitment to solar energy and the development of more efficient thin film solar modules. First Solar has developed an innovative photovoltaic technology focused on affordability as well as sustainability and is the preferred module supplier for major PV projects globally.

Terry Tamminen, CEO and Founder of 7th Generation Advisors, for his work in developing renewable energy solutions in California. For more than 20 years, Tamminen has developed, implemented and replicated effective renewable and sustainable energy solutions by using California as a proof-of-concept model, then scaling up to larger markets within the US and internationally.

Vestas, a Danish manufacturer of wind turbine technology for its work to bring clean energy to developing countries. For over 30 years, Vestas has been introducing innovative ideas to promote clean, renewable wind power as one of the world’s mainstream power solutions. They are relentlessly committed to establishing wind as a large-scale, sustainable alternative to oil and gas.