Nuclear power firms are scrambling to sell reactors to countries in one of the most troubled parts of the world, the Middle East. Many lack domestic customers and see this new market as a potential lifesaver.

A report last year by the US-based Center for Climate & Security included the Middle East in a list of what it called “potential crisis regions where combining security, climate, and nuclear risks must be addressed urgently.”

The biggest prize is the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has announced plans to build 16 nuclear plants over the next 25 years at a cost of US$80 billion, part of an effort to diversify away from fossil fuels. South Korea, China, France, Russia, Japan and the United States are all bidding to build them.

In a region where renewables are half the price of nuclear power – because the sun shines for longer and with greater intensity than almost anywhere else in the world – building new nuclear plants may seem strange.

Saudi Arabia, which is also investing heavily in solar power, points to rapidly rising domestic demand for electricity and says renewables will not provide enough for its needs.

Other countries in the region that are already building or have signed contracts to build new reactors are Iran, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

All say the decision to go for nuclear power is entirely a consequence of the local need for more electricity, although perhaps the Saudi rulers also have an eye on their power rival Iran, which already has an operating nuclear power station and is building more.

Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who effectively runs Saudi Arabia for his father King Salman, was asked about this on the US TV network CBS in March. He replied: “Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to own a nuclear bomb. But without a doubt, if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Rival contenders

Despite this, the Trump administration remains keen to sell its Westinghouse-designed nuclear power stations to the Saudis. Russia, China, Japan and South Korea also want to sell their own designs.

As well as the need to keep their national nuclear companies ticking over and grabbing lucrative exports, all these countries would welcome the political influence that providing such important infrastructure would give them in the Middle East.

Well ahead of Saudi Arabia in developing nuclear power is the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. Its first reactor was due to open this year and is almost complete, though its start-up date has been pushed back to 2019.

The UAE’s $24.4bn Barakah power plant is the world’s largest currently under construction. It will contain four reactors, is being built by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) and appears to be going well.

Too few operators

The postponement seems not to have been caused by construction delays but by lack of trained crew to operate the first of the four reactors. When it is up and running, the UAE will become the first country to start operating a nuclear plant in more than 20 years.

Again, the country has plenty of oil reserves and renewable resources, but wants nuclear power to provide a guaranteed electricity supply instead of having to rely on imported gas.

Jordan, which has no fossil fuel resource, and Egypt, with the region’s largest population, are also going nuclear. In both cases they have signed deals with the Russian state-owned giant Rosatom. Egypt has signed a deal for four nuclear plants costing $30bn, and Jordan for an energy package worth $12bn, but which also includes some American involvement, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Avoiding imports

Turkey, again a populous nation that has to import most of its energy in the form of fossil fuels, is building a nuclear power station at Akkuyu on its Mediterranean coast in partnership with Rosatom. The first reactor was expected to be operating by now, but the opening date has been put back to 2020. It has other plants planned on its northern Black Sea coast.

This sudden enthusiasm for nuclear power in such a volatile region has prompted a debate about some governments’ motives. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has long had the means to make nuclear weapons with its Negev Nuclear Research centre in the desert near Dimona.

It is already alarmed by Iran’s nuclear programme. A number of other potentially hostile states may also soon have the means to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

If they do, they will face an already fully armed Israel. According to an estimate by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Israel, which began operating a plutonium-production reactor in 1963, possesses enough material for between 100 and 170 atomic weapons. Israel has never admitted this.

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