DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Nuclear Society.
By Lauren Sukin
Iran isn’t the only Middle Eastern country that’s been developing nuclear energy. In the past few years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Egypt have all made notable headway. While some may be fearful of these developments, viewing them as strategic cover-ups for an ultimate goal of acquiring nuclear weapons, it is important to remember that there is a legitimate basis for these states to desire nuclear energy—in its own right.
Indeed, nuclear power has a compelling appeal in the Middle East, a region that’s increasingly facing energy security challenges. Water scarcity and rising consumer electricity demand have strained grids while fossil fuel resources dwindle. Even in presumably resource-rich nations, hydrocarbons are far more valuable for export than for consumption at home. As a result, many states are looking for new sources of domestic energy.
Saudi Arabia embodies this reality. There, a combination of population and energy growth as well as “consumer demand, industrial development, and the expansion of energy-gobbling water desalination plants” has put pressure on the Saudi energy market. From 2000 to 2012, the country saw a 30 percent increase in its per capita energy use. And that will only get worse: the Saudi government anticipates a need for a 107 percent increase in electricity generation by 2032. Others have estimated values as high as a 250 percent increase by 2028.
Although the Kingdom produces approximately 10 million barrels of oil each year, high demand now forces it to burn nearly a quarter of its supplies domestically—that’s a huge loss for a country that secures 90 percent of its revenue from oil sales. In addition, there’s growing consensus that the Saudis could see oil shortages in the next decade; this only reinforces the need for another path.
Nuclear energy may just be that path. Nuclear power plants last 40 years or more, can provide a steady and significant supply of domestic energy, and provide electricity at low costs in comparison to other sources, including fossil fuels.
The situation is certainly not limited to the Saudis. The UAE also hosts reserves of fossil fuels, earning substantial revenue from their export. As the UAE’s electricity demand increases—it’s projected to double between 2010 and 2020 as a result of energy-intensive desalination and massive industrial and population growth—the UAE will face tension between its economic desire to maintain energy exports and its need to meet energy demand. Moreover, the country already partially relies on imports, purchasing nearly 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year from Qatar. Faced with a growing “insufficiency of supply” for natural gas, the UAE has found nuclear energy a frontrunner solution, calling it “practical, commercially viable and clean.”
In Turkey, too, the stated rationale for nuclear energy has centered on energy security. Currently 33 percent of the country’s energy is imported from Russia and 17 percent is from Iran. And like its regional neighbors, Turkey has also seen rapid growth accompanied by increasing energy demand, which tripled there between 1992 and 2012.
Even Egypt, which is more energy independent than its neighbors, will soon need a supplement: its natural gas deposits are expected to be depleted by 2044, its oil reserves by 2025. Just one nuclear power plant would save the country nearly 70 billion cubic feet of natural gas or 2 million tons of oil per year. Given those numbers, nuclear power’s usefulness is clear.
Although each country has a slightly different story, the overall pattern is the same: rising electricity demand and looming resource scarcity has created strong, legitimate incentives for Middle Eastern states to develop nuclear power.
Lauren Sukin is an editor and researcher at The Century Foundation. She studies political science at Brown University.