Analysis: Pros and cons of Mideast nuclear power

It could be a blessing for owner countries and for region as a whole.

A nuclear power plant (illustrative). (photo credit: AP)
A nuclear power plant (illustrative).
(photo credit: AP)
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 reactors.

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 power production.

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.

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 ignored.

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 come.

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 capability.

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.