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.

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Gas Pipelines, Weak States, and Enemies Coming Together

The Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (TAPI) pipeline has been the subject of intense international politicking. The U.S. is trying to promote the $7.6 TAPI proposal as an alternative to Iran’s vision for a line originating in its own borders and going through Pakistan and India. Both the U.S. and India are trying to promote their plans as “peace pipelines” that will bring warring states closer. U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley recently noted in his daily press briefing, “TAPI’s route may serve as a stabilizing corridor, linking neighbors together in economic growth and prosperity.”

Yet despite the focus on international politics it is ultimately domestic politics in Afghanistan that will determine whether the TAPI pipeline is even feasible. Unlike in authoritarian Turkmenistan where the President saying the pipeline will take a certain route is enough to make the population accept it Afghanistan is a weak state where the power of the government barely extends outside of Kabul. The proposed route goes through Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, and local communities will need to be convinced that allowing the pipeline to go through their areas will ultimately provide some sort of benefit.

One insurgent group seems to have already bought into the vision of a pipeline through Afghanistan. Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) recently announced its support for the pipeline and even offered to provide security along the route. The HiG leadership has been in negotiations with the Karzai government over the past year and some analysts think this may be a bid to make itself appear a responsible actor if it is invited into the government. Or it may be an attempt to get more money to fund continued fighting as its members would expect payment for providing security along the route.

It will be interesting to see whether the TAPI pipeline, if it goes forward, ends up promoting stability or continued conflict both regionally and inside of Afghanistan. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up doing both. There is something ironic thinking about the U.S. and an insurgent group both working to promote the same project.

For a view from another part of the world on how a pipeline might bring enemies together check out Mary Stonaker’s piece in the Journal of Energy Security about how the Arab Gas Pipeline might serve as a diplomatic tool to bring Israel closer to Syria and Lebanon.