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The Middle East's Interrupted Atomic Dreams

As oil prices drop, nuclear power is becoming less attractive in the region. So why is Iran still hanging on to its program?

In light of Iran's rapidly accelerating nuclear program, more than a dozen states in the Middle East have also announced their intention to develop nuclear energy programs. The trend has caused much anxiety among members of the global community. It has sparked concerns about the spread of nuclear technology that could contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East, intensify arms races in the region among all classes of weapons, and become a target for terrorist activity. On this site, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, wrote about the United Arab Emirates (UAE): "After they have developed nuclear technologies, trained nuclear scientists and engineers, and plugged into global nuclear markets, will they go one step further and build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants that could be used to make fuel -- or bombs?"

But the global economic crisis has disrupted the calculus of nuclear power. An alternative to oil that once appeared to be a clear cost-saver has now come to look very unattractive. And countries are responding by shuttering their programs. Currently, there is not a single operational nuclear power plant in all of the Middle East, and the only one scheduled to go live in the near future will be the Bushehr plant in Iran next year. The scaling back of the Middle Eastern nuclear industry seems rational and likely within the context of global trends -- and this fact raises serious questions about Iran's motivations as it ramps up its own nuclear program.

A few of these programs, such as the one in the UAE, originally progressed at a swift pace. The UAE signed memoranda of understanding with at least five potential supplier states, signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, established a federal nuclear regulatory authority, developed a nuclear material licensing and control system, passed relevant domestic legislation to govern efforts, and joined important international treaties, all within a span of three years. (The average estimated time for a new nuclear energy program to become operational is generally 15 years.)

The main justifications given for this planned growth in nuclear power were long-term security concerns and the need to develop diversified and safe energy resources. The UAE is not alone in having legitimate concerns about matching its energy demand with alternative supplies. Saudi Arabia, for example, has one of the highest rates of electricity consumption in the world (ranked 19th among nations), and its energy needs are growing faster than any other Middle Eastern state's. To meet rising demand by 2030, the country will require additional generating capacity of an estimated 35 to 66 gigawatts.

There is also an emerging profit motivation. If demographic trends and existing policies remain unchanged, world energy demand is projected to grow by more than 50 percent by 2030 -- a demand the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations, especially Saudi Arabia, will be increasingly central in filling. The International Energy Agency projects OPEC Middle East oil production will increase from 25 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2008 to 38 mbd by 2030, a 65 percent increase. By 2030, OPEC will provide more than half the world's total oil supply. For oil-producing nations, burning their own crude oil to generate electricity results in a considerable loss of potential export revenues. By building nuclear power plants to fill domestic needs, Middle East oil producers plan to free up their oil and gas production for export to a hungry global market.

Another potential motivation (feverishly denied by officials across the Middle East) is a fear of Iran's nuclear ambitions. The timing of these countries' interest in going nuclear suggests an unease over Iran's expanding program. Although a nuclear energy program will not give Middle Eastern states a nuclear weapons capability, it will allow them to maintain a sense of technical parity with Iran and provide them with the infrastructure to jumpstart a weapons program if they so elected.

Despite all this initial enthusiasm, however, these nascent nuclear energy programs still haven't fully materialized. Several of them have been abandoned altogether, and others have slowed to a crawl.

Turkey, for example, announced in December 2009 that it had cancelled funding for new reactors, effectively ending its latest effort to introduce nuclear power. The decision came on the heels of Saudi Arabia's announcement in September 2009 that the country's future nuclear development would proceed more slowly than anticipated due to a need to build educational and technical infrastructure.

Even the UAE, the acknowledged leader among Middle East proponents of introducing nuclear energy, has slowed its program. On its face, the UAE has shown continued progress. Earlier this month it exchanged diplomatic notes with the United States on a bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation. And just this week it awarded South Korea the contract to build and operate its initial nuclear reactor. This said, however, the UAE made the contract decision after twice postponing it, and the South Korean company that won the reactor tender, Kepco, did so by aggressively offering it at a price that is 50 percent of the estimated $41 billion estimated market cost. (All this came on the heels of a massive bond default by Dubai that prompted a bailout by the UAE.)

The main factor driving the slowdown in nuclear programs in the Middle East is the drop in the price of oil. A secondary reason is the uncertainty created by the global economic crisis. In a preliminary feasibility study, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that nuclear energy would be economically viable for oil-producing states only when the price of oil exceeds $50 per barrel (roughly $60 per barrel at the going global market price). But the power generation in these countries would first have to transition to market-based prices and burn up all the "associated gas" (gas by-products associated with oil production and unsuitable for export) currently assigned to domestic utilities. The "associated gas" is committed for use by utilities until 2025, after which they would have to burn natural gas or oil to allow nuclear energy to become competitive and begin to meet domestic demand.

Another factor is the massive start-up cost for any Middle Eastern country considering creating a nuclear program. It is easy to forget that the majority of Middle East states lack even the most basic technological capability, industrial base, and scientific expertise necessary to take such a step. The overnight costs of building a nuclear power plant (the cost of a construction project if no interest was incurred during construction) are around $4,000/kilowatt, or 8.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, which could translate into real costs of $5 billion to $10 billion for a 1,000-megawatt electrical plant. In states seeking nuclear power for the first time, developing safety, security, and nuclear waste regulations and organizations could also significantly increase the amount of time and money it takes to set up new plants. But Middle Eastern states' willingness to foot those bills seems to have markedly diminished now that oil no longer costs $147 a barrel.

Middle East states that have no readily available energy alternatives, such as Jordan, will probably continue with their programs (Jordan imports 95 percent of its energy, spending $3.2 billion per year, or the equivalent of 20 percent of its GDP and 24 percent of its total imports). The problem is that these countries, because of a lack of fuel income, often don't have adequate funding to start a nuclear program. In other words, the states in the Middle East that need nuclear energy cannot afford it, while the ones that can don't really need it.

This is not the first time the introduction of nuclear energy to the Middle East has failed. After the massive oil price increases from 1973-1974, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others considered building nuclear plants. For a variety of reasons such as lack of financial resources, changes in basic cost-benefit calculus of such a program, and the shocking devastation caused by the Chernobyl accident, nuclear energy did not emerge and take hold. It seems likely that a similar process is at work today.

So what does this tell us about where energy trends in the Middle East are going?

First, that short-term economic interests have triumphed over long-term energy security and climate-change concerns. Second, the enormous amounts of oil profits that were pouring into oil- and gas-producing states during the recent price spike are not arriving anymore. The global economic crisis has made forecasting the future far more uncertain, and every country in the region has curbed its nuclear ambitions accordingly.

Every country, that is, except Iran, which holds the world's third-largest proven oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves, and is OPEC's second-largest oil producer and the world's fourth-largest crude oil exporter. While other Middle East states are slowing down their nuclear programs, Iran continues full steam ahead, building centrifuges and stockpiling light enriched uranium -- allegedly as fuel for its future reactors. No wonder Tehran's claims of peaceful intentions for its nuclear program are being greeted with greater and greater skepticism.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

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