Analysis: Pros and cons of Mideast nuclear power

Iran's progressing nuclear program and the fears ithas aroused were likely the trigger for some Middle East states toinitiate ambitious nuclear power programs.

Last year Abu Dhabi concluded a multibillion dealwith France to build nuclear power reactors. The United Arab Emiratessigned a deal with the US, Jordan signed an agreement with Britain, andEgypt announced that it is resurrecting its decades-old plan to buildnuclear power reactors along its Mediterranean coast.

In the more than half a century that has elapsed since thefirst nuclear reactor was connected to an electrical supply grid, theseinstallations have proven to be a reliable source of power, manyoperating years longer than originally anticipated.

Some countries rely on "nuclear electricity" to supply themajor part of their needs. In France, the most outstanding case inpoint, almost 80 percent of its electricity is produced by 59 nuclearreactors.

As fossil fuel costs began to rise, nuclear powerreactors became more competitive. The main economic considerations liein the fact that it costs more and takes longer to build a nuclearreactor compared to fossil fuel power stations.

On the other hand, the costs of fueling nuclear plants arelower than the running costs of a conventional power station. Ingeneral, the economics of nuclear power production vs. fossil fuelpower stations are country-dependent.

Also for economic reasons, the size of thenuclear power plants is considerable, usually in the range of 1,000electric megawatts (MW) output and upwards. Because of the technicalcharacteristics of a nuclear reactor, the electricity production needsto 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 willsupply a small fraction of the electric consumption. In this case, aninterruption of the supply from a nuclear plant would cause only aminor disruption and would be compensated by other electricitysuppliers. Interruptions can be planned, for refueling and maintenanceof the nuclear plant, or occur due to an unexpected outage caused byunforeseen equipment failures. Thus each nuclear power plant shouldsupply a relatively small fraction of a country's needs.

Another factor that could determine the costs of electricityproduction is the distance from the power plant to the consumer. Theneed to erect transmission lines and the energy lost by transmittingover long distances are factors in the economic considerations forpower production.

These considerations are modified if the energy produced bynuclear power plants is to be used, in part or wholly, for waterdesalination. The costs of the water and its transport to the consumerswill determine the economics of the power production.

There are many additional factors that could determine theadvisability of constructing a nuclear power plant in comparison withconventional plants, including local environmental considerations, theavailability of sites for nuclear reactors, and so on.

During regular operation, nuclear reactors are environmentallyclean, especially in comparison with coal-fired plants. In addition,the decades of experience in safely operating large reactors, mainly ofWestern origin, has reduced the fear of large-scale accidents, thoughnot eliminated it completely.

The activities outside the reactor hall pose the mostdifficulties: the need for a fuel cycle, beginning with the "front end"- the production of the nuclear fuel, and the "back-end" - the disposalof the spent fuel, when it is removed from the reactor.

Most of today's nuclear power reactors are fueled bylow-enriched uranium. This requires an enrichment plant, which alsoholds the potential for producing military-grade high-enriched uranium.

Disposal of the irradiated nuclear fuel is another difficultissue. There are two main methods of disposal: long term storage andreprocessing.

Reprocessing extracts plutonium, itself a weapons-capablematerial. Although the common mode of operating a nuclear power reactorwill produce an almost militarily unusable grade of plutonium, thepotential for producing military grade plutonium is there. Therefore,the fear of proliferation - of utilizing the nuclear fuel cycle formilitary purposes - is ever-present, especially in regions of tension.

A possible solution to this problem is to have all fuel cycleactivities, with the exception of the reactor operation, outside thegeographical region. This would eliminate, albeit not completely, thefear of proliferation from specific plants. On the other hand, theeconomics of transporting spent fuel outside the region would influencethe overall economics of nuclear power production.

Other considerations in the decisions to initiate nuclear powerprojects include national prestige and a determination to show theregion that the nuclear arena has many participants who are not to beignored.

Two additional unrelated factors should be mentioned. The firstis the availability of trained personnel and technical infrastructure.Many of the above-mentioned countries do not have sufficient localtrained personnel, and would have to rely not only on a turn-keyproject for the construction of the nuclear power station, but on theoperation of the installation by foreign personnel for many years tocome.

The second, and no minor matter in this region of tension, isthe need to secure the nuclear part of the installation fromaggression, including terrorist attacks. Unless the nuclear plant iswell protected, the consequences of a successful attack could besevere, not only for the site itself but for a long distance away.

The question of erecting a nuclear power plant is thusmulti-faceted. Besides the straightforward issue of economic viabilitycome the issues safety, security, proliferation resistance, and theability of the country to erect and maintain a nuclear powercapability.

Given a positive response to all these, there should be noreason to oppose nuclear power. It could well be a blessing for theowner countries and for the region as a whole.

Reprinted with permission of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.