The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Arabs and nuclear energy

A few years ago, nuclear power was all the rage in the Arab world. Gamal Mubarak tried to boost his own statesman credentials by announcing that Egypt would build its first commercial nuclear plant. Soon most of the GCC followed suit, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria began feasibility studies, and it looked like the entire region would get on the nuclear bandwagon. Much of this nuclear talk had a whiff of nationalism about it, as if nuclear plants were as much prestige projects as an answer to skyrocketing electricity consumption (that for instance caused rolling brownouts last summer in Egypt and could very well do so again). The context of Iran's nuclear weapons program led to a spate of stories about how this was a preliminary to a region-wide nuclear arms race, even though the two issues are quite separate.

The US and other Western powers, as well as countries with solid nuclear experience like Russia, Kazakhstan or South Korea, generally rejoiced at this news because the Arab countries would be concluding juicy contracts with their firms. They began to compete for who would get the contracts. When Egypt's own $160m feasibility study was carried out by an Australian firm called WorleyParsons rather than Bechtel, as initially planned, it was said it was because the firm's local consultant was Mounir Thabet, the brother of Suzanne Mubarak (others joked it was because Bechtel had recently hired David Welch, a former US Ambassador in Cairo that Mubarak could not stand.) The US in particular was hoping to sell General Electric and Westinghouse's latest type of nuclear reactor, which they said made the misuse of spent fuel to generate weapons-grade material impossible and would grant control of the fuel cycle to the West. (This may or may not have been a selling point of the reactors for a depressed American nuclear industry had lobbied for with Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force and produced the Bush administration nuclear-pushing GNEP.)

Then the revolutions came. It's not clear whether Egypt or other countries outside the GCC will pursue their nuclear policies anymore. For one, they are facing serious fiscal problems and may not have the resources to invest in plants that cost multiples of billions of dollars. The political (and economic) motives for the nuclear project may also change. And of course, there's Japan. I don't know enough about what happened in Japan to tell whether it's a universal risk: the plants affected, after all, were all 1970s models and it's been reported newer models do not have their safety flaws. Nonetheless, it's quite a warning for those of us who thought nuclear energy, overall, was fairly safe.

I have been a big fan of nuclear energy, as used by France for instance. It makes sense for Middle Eastern states to develop electricity production that does not rely on burning fossil fuels they could be exporting or using in plastics plants or refineries. Of course that could be renewables — if you can eventually get them to be more productive. There remains a strategic argument for developing the indigenous technology know-how behind nuclear power, too: it will make a nuclear weapons program substantially easier to start. Any country would bear that in mind, especially in a region a war-prone as this one and in which a theological state already has a substantial arsenal which the current foreign minister has threatened to use (i.e. Israel.) 

The Heinrich Boll Stigtung, the think-tank and NGO arm of the German Green party, has recently translated a book on the risks of nuclear energy into Arabic. You can get it here (as well as in English). The latest issue of their magazine, Perspectives, has a debate on the issue of nuclear energy in the Arab world (again from the critical angle.) I'm not sure that it's worth abandoning nuclear power altogether (that's a debate the world is having post-Japan) but it's an issue that is worth having a wider debate about in the Arab world, learning from the evolution of the debate in Europe and elsewhere since the 1950s.