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Mon 8 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Nuclear family

Atomic energy continues to gain credence in the Gulf.

Nuclear power is in the news again. Its place in the region's media agenda is guaranteed for several reasons. First there's the perpetual posturing and stand-offs of the dysfunctional Iran-US relationship. Second is simply demand.

Countries in the GCC need more power. They need it to keep growing and, according to a recent survey, most of the public believe they need more just to get through summer with the air conditioning on. While energy conservation is a popular and valid refrain, it's going to take more than a country full of long-life light bulbs to fire up a new aluminium smelter, or desalinate the Gulf.

So, if industrial ambitions are going to be met, without burning through fuel that has a more profitable future on the export market, nuclear power looks like the answer. A reduced carbon footprint is a socially responsible side effect.

In the Gulf, the UAE has been getting the ball rolling and currently looks the most likely to be first to commission a nuclear power station. Egypt may just beat it to the title of first nuclear powered Arab nation.

A high-profile donation of US $10 million to a global nuclear fuel bank is the latest indicator that the UAE will be going nuclear as soon as reasonably possible. If the bank comes to fruition - more donations are still needed - it will effectively provide access to the necessary enriched uranium, removing the need for a country to operate a large collection of centrifuges. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will play the role of banker.

"The UAE donation marks another important milestone towards supporting mechanisms for non-discriminatory, non-political assurances of supply of fuel for nuclear power plants," said Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the IAEA. Baradei is due to speak at a public event in the UAE later this year, by then there may well be more to say on the UAE's nuclear future and the support of the IAEA.

In the meantime UAE papers have started reporting the first location scouting efforts. An energy expert has pinpointed a site between Abu Dhabi and Ruwais where two power plants could be built, roughly 50 km apart. Fujairah was also suggested.

Coastal sites are most likely, as nuclear power needs plenty of water and easy access to shipping. Predictions expect the UAE to build a fleet of atomic reactors to cater for up to half of the nation's power needs by 2025.

Still, reactors aren't built in a day, so expect it to be close to a decade before a GCC country joins the nuclear family.

Stuart Matthews is the senior group editor of ITP Business.

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