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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