Iran's progressing nuclear program and the fears it
has aroused were likely the trigger for some Middle East states to
initiate ambitious nuclear power programs.
Last year Abu Dhabi concluded a multibillion deal
with France to build nuclear power reactors. The United Arab Emirates
signed a deal with the US, Jordan signed an agreement with Britain, and
Egypt announced that it is resurrecting its decades-old plan to build
nuclear power reactors along its Mediterranean coast.
In the more than half a century that has elapsed since the
first nuclear reactor was connected to an electrical supply grid, these
installations have proven to be a reliable source of power, many
operating years longer than originally anticipated.
Some countries rely on "nuclear electricity" to supply the
major part of their needs. In France, the most outstanding case in
point, almost 80 percent of its electricity is produced by 59 nuclear
As fossil fuel costs began to rise, nuclear power
reactors became more competitive. The main economic considerations lie
in the fact that it costs more and takes longer to build a nuclear
reactor compared to fossil fuel power stations.
On the other hand, the costs of fueling nuclear plants are
lower than the running costs of a conventional power station. In
general, the economics of nuclear power production vs. fossil fuel
power stations are country-dependent.
Also for economic reasons, the size of the
nuclear power plants is considerable, usually in the range of 1,000
electric megawatts (MW) output and upwards. Because of the technical
characteristics of a nuclear reactor, the electricity production needs
to be continuous for long periods of time - a part of the "base load"
of an electric grid.
In large developed countries, a single nuclear power plant will
supply a small fraction of the electric consumption. In this case, an
interruption of the supply from a nuclear plant would cause only a
minor disruption and would be compensated by other electricity
suppliers. Interruptions can be planned, for refueling and maintenance
of the nuclear plant, or occur due to an unexpected outage caused by
unforeseen equipment failures. Thus each nuclear power plant should
supply a relatively small fraction of a country's needs.
Another factor that could determine the costs of electricity
production is the distance from the power plant to the consumer. The
need to erect transmission lines and the energy lost by transmitting
over long distances are factors in the economic considerations for
These considerations are modified if the energy produced by
nuclear power plants is to be used, in part or wholly, for water
desalination. The costs of the water and its transport to the consumers
will determine the economics of the power production.
There are many additional factors that could determine the
advisability of constructing a nuclear power plant in comparison with
conventional plants, including local environmental considerations, the
availability of sites for nuclear reactors, and so on.
During regular operation, nuclear reactors are environmentally
clean, especially in comparison with coal-fired plants. In addition,
the decades of experience in safely operating large reactors, mainly of
Western origin, has reduced the fear of large-scale accidents, though
not eliminated it completely.
The activities outside the reactor hall pose the most
difficulties: the need for a fuel cycle, beginning with the "front end"
- the production of the nuclear fuel, and the "back-end" - the disposal
of the spent fuel, when it is removed from the reactor.
Most of today's nuclear power reactors are fueled by
low-enriched uranium. This requires an enrichment plant, which also
holds the potential for producing military-grade high-enriched uranium.
Disposal of the irradiated nuclear fuel is another difficult
issue. There are two main methods of disposal: long term storage and
Reprocessing extracts plutonium, itself a weapons-capable
material. Although the common mode of operating a nuclear power reactor
will produce an almost militarily unusable grade of plutonium, the
potential for producing military grade plutonium is there. Therefore,
the fear of proliferation - of utilizing the nuclear fuel cycle for
military purposes - is ever-present, especially in regions of tension.
A possible solution to this problem is to have all fuel cycle
activities, with the exception of the reactor operation, outside the
geographical region. This would eliminate, albeit not completely, the
fear of proliferation from specific plants. On the other hand, the
economics of transporting spent fuel outside the region would influence
the overall economics of nuclear power production.
Other considerations in the decisions to initiate nuclear power
projects include national prestige and a determination to show the
region that the nuclear arena has many participants who are not to be
Two additional unrelated factors should be mentioned. The first
is the availability of trained personnel and technical infrastructure.
Many of the above-mentioned countries do not have sufficient local
trained personnel, and would have to rely not only on a turn-key
project for the construction of the nuclear power station, but on the
operation of the installation by foreign personnel for many years to
The second, and no minor matter in this region of tension, is
the need to secure the nuclear part of the installation from
aggression, including terrorist attacks. Unless the nuclear plant is
well protected, the consequences of a successful attack could be
severe, not only for the site itself but for a long distance away.
The question of erecting a nuclear power plant is thus
multi-faceted. Besides the straightforward issue of economic viability
come the issues safety, security, proliferation resistance, and the
ability of the country to erect and maintain a nuclear power
Given a positive response to all these, there should be no
reason to oppose nuclear power. It could well be a blessing for the
owner countries and for the region as a whole.
Reprinted with permission of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.