Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 11:35:05 AM EST
While most people reading this will immediately think of the Iranian nuclear reactor under construction at Busherh and the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, this article is about something else entirely. Without most people noticing it, the Arab world is following practically everyone else in the rush for nuclear power as the price of petroleum has stabilized around $60 a barrel.
The countries who have started or restarted civilian nuclear power programs are Morroco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. On top of this Turkey is planning three 1500 MW reactors, and after it's recent rehabilitation from the community of pariah states, Libya has also expressed interest in nuclear power.
While these nations intend to use nuclear power to generate electricity (and to create nuclear know-how just in case...) they also intend to use nuclear power for something else.
Some Middle East states, including Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, have shown initial interest [in using] nuclear power primarily for desalination purposes," Tomihiro Taniguch, the deputy director-general of the IAEA, told the business weekly Middle East Economic Digest.
If there is something these countries have a vital need to supply their rapidly increasing populations with besides electricity, it's water. But just as has been the case with Iran, some people argue that nuclear power in these petroleum rich states does not make sense.
Egypt and other North African states can argue with some justification that they need cheap, safe energy for their expanding economies and growing populations at a time of high oil prices.
The case will be much harder for Saudi Arabia, which sits on the world's largest oil reserves.
While the argument that Arabs can't possibly be allowed to decide or even understand what is the optimal energy policies for their countries is rather insulting, it also demonstrates ignorance about either nuclear power, market economy, or both.
The fact is that well managed nuclear power is the cheapest possible way to generate electricity, maybe with the exception of well managed hydropower. American pundits might think otherwise as the implementation of nuclear energy in their country was about as far from optimal as is imaginable. Think nasty hippies slowing everything to a crawl, and an impossible judicial system that even managed to shut down one completed reactor. Now consider what happens when you have massive loans in a high interest environment and those hippies make your project drag from 4 years to 10. If your reactor is ever completed, the power will not be cheap.
Anyway, it does not make sense to burn petroleum to make electricity when you can get more money by selling the petroleum to foreigners and getting your power from reactors.
Then what about nuclear proliferation? It's true that having a civilian power program creates nuclear know-how, but it is nowhere enough to make nuclear weapons. To do that, highly specialised technology and highly skilled scientists are needed, and on top of this fissile material is required. There are only two ways generate fissile material. One is to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to aquire plutonium. The other is to enrich uranium to a much higher degree than what is done for ordinary reactor fuel. Both these paths require extensive industrial infrastructure.
Hopefully the Great powers can make sure they are the only ones who deal with enrichment and reprocessing, exporting fresh fuel and taking back spent fuel from other countries if they want to reprocess. But considering the example of Iran it doesn't seem there is much to do if a strong and petroleum rich country makes it clear they'll damn well do whatever they want.
Thanks to John Wheeler at This Week in Nuclear for the tip!
Crossposted at Bits of News.