Nuclear Power in the Middle East

Amid rising global interest in nuclear energy in 2005–2010, Middle Eastern states announced plans to build a total of about 90 nuclear power reactors at 26 sites by 2030.

Six of the region’s countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, the UAE, and Yemen) were planning to launch their first NPPs by 2017. An average of six reactors were planned to be launched in the region every year in the 2018–2030 period.

The most universal reasons to pursue nuclear energy, i.e. the reasons shared by all Middle Eastern states up to 2010, included rising demand for electricity; the need to diversify energy sources; and growing public acceptance of nuclear energy. Some of the region’s states also had their own reasons not necessarily shared by their neighbors. These included the availability of capital looking for investment opportunities; regional competition and the factor of prestige conferred by having nuclear power plants; and, quite possibly, the desire to acquire a military deterrence capability in the wake of the deposal of the Iraqi and Libyan regimes. The latter consideration translated into interest in building scientific, technological, and industrial capability in the nuclear sphere, a capability that could be used at some point to build nuclear weapons, if a political decision is made to that effect.

Given the limited nuclear infrastructure in the Middle East, including the lack of skilled personnel or the legal and regulatory framework, the nuclear energy plans announced by Middle Eastern states in 2005–2010 could in most cases be described as overly ambitious. They had a very slim chance of being implemented within the originally expected time frame. Suffice is to say that when these plans were announced, only four of the region’s states (Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Turkey) were already operating research reactors.

Although the Fukushima nuclear accident triggered a new crisis of confidence in nuclear energy, it had a salutary effect on Middle Eastern countries’ nuclear energy plans, making them more realistic. At the same time, the accident at the Fukushima NPP did nothing to alter the fundamental reasons for the nuclear newcomers’ interest in nuclear energy, such as rising energy demand, environmental challenges, energy security concerns and diversification of energy sources. Only Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait have abandoned their previous plans. Bahrain and Oman are the two smallest states in the region, so their NPP plans were problematic even before Fukushima. In fact, Bahrain’s entire territory is only about half as large as the exclusion (evacuation) zone set up in Japan after the Fukushima accident. Kuwait, meanwhile, has stronger antinuclear public sentiment than most of the Middle Eastern states.

The effects of the Arab Spring on the Middle Eastern countries’ nuclear energy plans have not been uniform. For the countries dependent on energy imports, such as Jordan and Turkey, recent turbulence in the region has further strengthened the argument in favor of energy security and nuclear energy. In states such as Egypt, domestic instability, economic problems and growing security challenges have forced governments to postpone their nuclear energy plans. The act of terror that brought down the Russian A321 airliner flying from Sharm el-Sheikh on October 31, 2015 has raised serious questions about the Egyptian government’s ability to provide adequate levels of security at its critical infrastructure facilities amid the growing terror threat. The growing likelihood of a full-blown political crisis in Jordan could also complicate that country’s plans to build its first NPP.

Another negative factor that affects the outlook for nuclear energy development in the Middle East is the appearance in 2013 of the ISIS quasi-state, which has seized parts of Syria and Iraq, and wants to spread its influence to the entire region and beyond.

Three Middle Eastern NPP projects have entered the active phase. The region’s first NPP in Bushehr was connected to the energy grid and began commercial operation in September 2011. A contract to build another two reactors in Bushehr was signed in 2014. The four reactors of the Barakah NPP in the UAE were laid down in 2012–2015; the No 1 reactor will begin to supply electricity to the grid in 2017. It is expected that construction at the Akkuyu NPP site in Turkey will commence in 2016, once all the necessary permits and licenses have been obtained. The deepening crisis in Russian-Turkish relations may become a new factor that affects the outlook for Turkey’s nuclear energy development program. The crisis was triggered when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015. Two Russian servicemen were killed in the incident. On November 28, 2015 the Russian president signed a decree that imposed restrictions on economic cooperation with Turkish companies. As of now, these economic sanctions have not had any direct effect on the Akkuyu NPP project.

Under the most optimistic scenario for nuclear energy in the Middle East, there could be 33 nuclear power reactors in operation at nine NPPs in six states in the region (Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE) by 2030. Under the pessimistic scenario, only Iran, Turkey, and the UAE will be operating one NPP apiece, with a total of 11 reactors, by 2030. In other words, only about a third of the reactors announced in 2005–2010 will have been built under the optimistic scenario, and only 10% under the pessimistic scenario. A more conservative scenario is possible if relations between Russia and Turkey fail to demonstrate progress reasonably quickly.

Over the past several years Russian nuclear industry has demonstrated its readiness to play the central role in implementing nuclear energy development plans in the Middle East. Russian specialists were heavily involved in the launch of the region’s first NPP in Iran. Middle Eastern projects account for a third of the Rosatom corporation’s long-term portfolio of contracts to build nuclear power reactors (eight reactors out of 25, to be built in Jordan, Iran, and Turkey). Rosatom subsidiaries are taking part in preliminary consultations that could end in the signing of contracts to build another eight reactors in the Middle East (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey).

Rosatom is working hard to facilitate the formation of the international legal framework for closer nuclear energy cooperation with the Middle Eastern states. Russia has signed intergovernmental agreements on peaceful nuclear energy cooperation with eight countries in the region (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and the UAE). Rosatom has also signed memorandums of understanding on peaceful nuclear energy cooperation with authorized organizations from another four countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar).

Intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in building NPPs have been signed with Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Turkey. The Russian and Iranian governments have signed a protocol to the August 25, 1992 agreement on building an NPP in Iran. That protocol and the original agreement have created the legal framework for building more reactors in Iran.

Rosatom’s competitive advantages in the Middle Eastern nuclear energy market include the company’s ability to make comprehensive offers to its customers, offers that include all the latest financial, technological, and organizational solutions. For example, the Akkuyu NPP is expected to be the first nuclear energy project in the world to use the build-own-operate (BOO) solution, whereby the general contractor builds the NPP, owns it, and runs it. Russian companies could also participate in the Amra NPP project in Jordan as co-investors. The Russian government is expected to provide credit financing for the project to build the El Dabaa NPP in Egypt based on Russian technology.

For the first Turkish NPP project, Russia has offered the latest AES-2006 reactor design. The first AES-2006 reactor is scheduled for launch at the Novovoronezh NPP-2 until the end of the year 2016. In the Iranian, Jordanian, Turkish, and likely Egyptian projects, Rosatom will build the nuclear power plants, supply fresh nuclear fuel, and remove spent fuel back to Russia for the entire life of the NPP. In view of the Middle Eastern countries’ limited experience with nuclear energy, Russia is also ready to help train indigenous nuclear personnel and to operate the NPP during the first several years.

The problems Rosatom and its subsidiaries are likely to face in the Middle East include high seismic activity and the scarcity of water in large parts of the region. These factors impose natural limitations on the development of nuclear energy in the region. There is also political instability and growing activity of non-state actors. Finally, Russia does not have strong trade and economic links with the region’s countries, and does not know the local business environment very well.

Russia is involved in all three NPP projects that have reached the practical phase in the Middle East. The Bushehr NPP and the Akkuyu NPP rely on Russian reactor technology. As for the Barakah NPP, agreements have already been signed under which Russia will supply up to half of the enriched uranium required to produce nuclear fuel for that NPP during the first 15 years of its operation. The first low-enriched uranium delivery was made in 2014.

If the project development agreement is fulfilled successfully, in 2016–2017 Russia could also secure the Jordanian contract to build two reactors at Amra. The Russian nuclear industry also has a good chance of securing involvement in the El Dabaa NPP project in Egypt, once the political and economic situation in the country improves. As for the Saudi Arabian projects, Russia could provide some of the enriched uranium required to make fuel for the future Saudi NPPs.

To summarize, if the aforementioned optimistic scenario for nuclear energy development in the Middle East comes to pass (i.e. nine NPPs are built in six countries by 2030), Russia could supply the reactor technology for projects in four countries (Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey), and provide enriched uranium and nuclear fuel cycle services for projects in another two countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE).

Under the pessimistic scenario, only three NPP projects will have been implemented in the Middle East by 2030. Work on all three has already begun. In that case, Russia will provide the reactor technology for two projects (Bushehr and Akkuyu NPPs), and supply enriched uranium for the Barakah NPP. Adoption by the six international mediators (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) and Iran on July 14, 2015, of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to resolve crisis over nuclear technologies in Iran, is expected to facilitate construction of the second stage of the Bushehr NPP (units #2, #3).
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.