Mena pushes for nuclear future

2 August 2023


The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is set to register a rise of at least 30 per cent in power generation capacity by 2030 due to population growth and industrial expansion.

The rapid increase requires a strategy to advance energy security while reducing carbon emissions and fossil-fuel dependence, creating strong interest in nuclear power and renewable energy.

Iran has a 1GW nuclear plant in Bushehr and construction is under way for a second 300MW reactor in Khuzestan.

In the UAE, three of the four 1.4GW reactors at the GCC region’s first multi-unit nuclear power plant in Barakah, Abu Dhabi, are now connected to the electricity grid.

Egypt, in partnership with Russia’s Rosatom, is building its first nuclear power plant in El-Debaa.

Riyadh, meanwhile, tendered the contract to build its first large-scale power plant in Duwaiheen last year.

Beyond the GCC, Jordan has announced the production of 20 kilograms of yellowcake from 160 tonnes of uranium ore at a newly operational processing facility, while Morocco has completed a study supporting a plan to go nuclear.

Alternative base load

Apart from Saudi Arabia, these countries have significant renewable capacity as of 2023. All aim for renewables to account for up to half of installed capacity by the end of the decade.

Nuclear is seen as an alternative base load to thermal capacity to counter the intermittency of renewables in the absence of viable storage solutions. This has helped build the case for adding nuclear to the energy mix – although, in the UAE, the Barakah plant predated the renewable energy programme.

The decarbonisation potential of nuclear may be overstated, however, says a leading regional expert on utility projects.

“We should use all available clean-carbon solutions to decarbonise all industrial and human consumption and endeavour,” says Paddy Padmanathan, former CEO of Saudi utility Acwa Power. “Clearly we need to decarbonise as soon as possible.”

The rate at which the residual carbon budget is being consumed implies that even zero emissions by 2050 will not be sufficient, according to the executive. This begs the question: Which technologies will deliver solutions at scale to quickly achieve decarbonisation.

Nuclear power plants, which – with the exception of Abu Dhabi’s Barakah – have struggled to be delivered on time and within budget, may not be a viable solution, says Padmanathan, who now sits on the board of the UK energy startup Xlinks and green hydrogen firm Zhero.

He says nuclear power plants outside China have taken twice as long to build than planned and have typically cost more than twice their budget. Such capital expenditure and long construction times mean nuclear may only make sense if you have lots of spare cash, he adds.

Hence it is unwise to factor in nuclear to plans to decarbonise power generation by 2050, Padmanathan argues. “We already have much – if not all – the technologies to get the job done,” he notes, referring to renewable energy and battery storage solutions, among others. 

He continues: “One cannot bank on such a rare outlier as Barakah, which got completed with only a marginal increase in cost and time, and rely on nuclear to deliver any meaningful level of flexible base load.”

Saudi programme

Budget availability and the urgency of decarbonisation aside, other factors complicate nuclear projects in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom’s nuclear energy programme dates back to 2010 with the creation of King Abdullah City for Atomic & Renewable Energy (KA-Care). In 2021, KA-Care invited consultancy bids for its first large-scale nuclear power project in Duwaiheen, close to the Qatar border. It awarded the financial, legal and technical advisory services contracts last year.

In October 2022, Riyadh issued the request for proposals for the main contract to Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms.

Earlier this year, it formed the Saudi Nuclear Energy Holding Company, which plans to develop nuclear power plants as early as 2027 to produce electricity and to desalinate seawater, as well as for thermal energy applications. 

Most recently, the state offtaker Saudi Power Procurement Company floated a tender for advisers to help prepare and review project agreements related to the procurement of electricity from Saudi’s first nuclear power plant, raising further speculation about the nuclear project.

The Saudi programme, particularly the kingdom’s plans to mine uranium as part of its economic and industrial strategy, is a thorn in Washington’s side. It is understood to have been a key theme in discussions when US President Joe Biden visited Riyadh last year.

Washington is wary of the nuclear power plant contract being awarded to Chinese or Russian contractors, not only because this could drive Riyadh closer to geopolitical rivals of the US, but also because it weakens US demands for Riyadh to abandon its nuclear fuel cycle ambitions before signing any bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement (NCA), otherwise known in Washington as a 123 agreement.

Uranium has to be enriched to up to 5 per cent for use in nuclear power plants and to 90 per cent to become weapons-grade. According to an Energy Intelligence report, the stalemate between Washington and Riyadh centres around US demands for Saudi Arabia to commit to the NCA and not pursue a domestic uranium enrichment or reprocessing programme.

The US also wants the kingdom to sign and ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol, allowing nuclear inspectors fuller access to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme.

The report alludes to the US supporting South Korean contractor Kepco’s bid to develop the nuclear plant because it provides Washington with a final lever for pressuring Riyadh to accept its conditions for the 123 agreement and IAEA protocol.

Done deal

Biden’s visit did not produce material results, although unconfirmed reports say he may have given his blessing to the project, while others argue Riyadh did not need it.

“I think, in the end, this is a done deal, meaning that Saudi Arabia will pursue a nuclear energy programme,” says Karen Young, a senior research scholar at the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in the US.

“They will pursue domestic uranium mining and likely enrichment, and we will see a more global ramp-up of nuclear energy use – and also, over time, possibly areas of proliferation in security uses not just in the Mena region, but across a wide geography.”

The US can either take solace from the fact that it takes time to develop a nuclear project, or it can – if it is not too late – revisit its relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially in the wake of a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh under a deal brokered by China.

“Moving into design and procurement phases … whether with Russian, Chinese or South Korean [firms] … heightens already sensitive notions of strategic competition in the Gulf, as the US understands it,” notes Young.

In hindsight, it appears the US government has under-appreciated the seriousness of the Saudi plan or the importance of localised industry and mining as a domestic economic and security interest.

“Saudi Arabia sees an opportunity to play the US against its other options, so this is a unique moment of bargaining in which the nuclear file can be traded against broader foreign policy priorities for the Saudi leadership,” Young says.

Russian conundrum

The Barakah nuclear process, which entailed Abu Dhabi signing a 123 agreement with Washington, is seen as a gold standard. Emirates Nuclear Energy Company (Enec) signed supply contracts with France’s Areva and Russia’s Tenex for the supply of uranium concentrates and for the provision of conversion and enrichment services.

It then contracted Uranium One, part of Russia’s Rosatom, and UK-headquartered Rio Tinto for the supply of natural uranium for the plant. US-based ConverDyn provided conversion services, while British firm Urenco provided enrichment services.

The enriched uranium was supplied to Kepco Nuclear Fuels to manufacture the fuel assemblies for use at the Barakah nuclear power plant.

Fuel supply, processing, removal and storage are now complicated by Russia’s conflict and its global reputation, notes Young. The reference to Russia is important, given that Iran has provided drones to the country for use in its war with Ukraine, in exchange for the sale of advanced military equipment and cyber warfare. This is seen as a direct threat to Opec ally Riyadh.

The Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement only makes sense from a viewpoint where a dead Iran nuclear deal could expedite the Islamic Republic’s plan to build a bomb, potentially leading to a nuclear arms raise in the region, which everyone – particularly the two countries’ biggest client, China – would rather avoid.

Despite these complexities, the regional and global push to build nuclear capacity following the invasion of Ukraine and the threat to global gas supplies does not appear to be slowing.

The UAE, for instance, has partnered with the US to mobilise $100bn to support clean energy projects at home and abroad, and has pledged $30bn for energy cooperation with South Korea. Both these commitments involve significant investments in renewable and civilian nuclear energy projects.

This suggests that nuclear as a clean energy option is here to stay, despite mounting costs and geopolitical risks

Unfortunately, however, in a region marked by perennial instability, there are few incentives for the involved countries to be more transparent about their programmes.

While the evolving rapprochement between countries that have previously considered each other existential threats might not eliminate the spectre of a nuclear arms race, it can defuse tensions in the interim while helping push decarbonisation agendas.
Jennifer Aguinaldo
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