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Sun 1 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Nuclear’s second wind

Time is a healer, as the saying goes. And in the case of nuclear energy this seems to be true.

Governments the world over are taking another look at nuclear power.

Time is a healer, as the saying goes. And in the case of nuclear energy this certainly seems to be true.

Not long back, it looked like nuclear power would never be able to shake off the tainted image that it gained 20 years ago as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

The explosion in April 1986 that ripped apart reactor number four at the Ukrainian plant killed around thirty people and exposed thousands of others to potentially lethal doses of radiation. And many countries abandoned their planned nuclear programmes soon after.

Because this was such a unique occurrence, numerous studies have been conducted on the after-effects on the people who lived nearby, which have kept the event firmly in the public mind.

By contrast, the US Three Mile Island accident in March 1979 has largely slipped from memory. Even though the plant's reactor was destroyed, safety mechanisms worked and all radiation was contained within the building, and no deaths or injuries resulted.

What is often forgotten, though, is that the Chernobyl explosion was the combined result of flawed Soviet reactor design and maverick testing carried out by poorly trained operators, and as such it should never be repeated.

Nevertheless, there were lessons to be learnt from both incidents, and reactor designs and operating procedures have been much improved since then. And now, with 20 relatively trouble-free years under its belt, it appears that nuclear power is no longer regarded as the bad guy.

World-wide revival

As countries seek to establish independent, secure energy supplies and to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with the demands of the Kyoto Protocol, nuclear is once again being considered as an affordable and viable low-carbon source of energy.

Countries that were once committed to a nuclear phase-out are now having second thoughts. And supporters of the technology are going to great lengths to paint nuclear fission as a safe source of energy, pointing out that coal-mining accidents and gas explosions account for hundreds of fatalities each year.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 435 nuclear reactors operating around the world and a further 30 facilities under construction.

France's AREVA, the world's largest supplier of nuclear reactors, openly talked about a nuclear revival during the presentation of its 2007 financial results. The state-run firm predicts more than 500 GWe worth of new nuclear power plant orders or life extension orders for existing facilities will be made worldwide by 2030.

Over the next two decades, many European countries will have to replace generating capacity as plants come to the end of their service life. China, Japan, India, Brazil, the UK and the US are all looking to expand their programmes and new markets are also emerging in Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Within MENA itself, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and the GCC member countries are all considering building nuclear power plants. Some of them already have research reactors up and running. Iran, of course, is much further down the line.Since the start of the year, a flurry of nuclear co-operation agreements have been signed between countries in this region and those that already have the technology. The UAE, for example, has inked deals with France, the UK and the US.

At present, the UAE appears the country most determined within the GCC to develop nuclear energy with its recent decision to set up a US $100 million nuclear programme implementation body.

Other countries in the region seem more committed to the GCC-wide nuclear strategy that has been on the table for a number of years.

Nuclear in the GCC

The GCC announced in December 2006 that it was commissioning a study on the peaceful use of nuclear power. France agreed to provide advice to the council, while Iran pledged assistance with nuclear technology.

In February 2007, the six states agreed with the IAEA to co-operate on a feasibility study for a regional nuclear power and desalination programme. Saudi Arabia is leading the investigation and it is thought that a programme may emerge in 2009.

Ali Saleh Al Barrack president and CEO of Saudi Electricity Company supports the idea of a GCC-wide project and believes nuclear will be the solution to the region's impending energy shortage and growing environmental problems.

"We have no time for our visionary energy sources. Civilisation is in danger if we continue burning fossil fuels. We need to look at other options. Nuclear is the option available for the future," he says.

"Nuclear has been around since 1952. The danger is from what we are doing now using more fossil fuels and coal, which is destroying the environment and making global warming. It is time for the developed world to allow the developing countries have a chance to have nuclear power plants as it is a clean and safe energy.

"Renewables can only contribute small part," Al Barrack continues. "We have no hydro power in the region, wind is limited and with solar there are technical problems to deliver high power. Even if we developed renewables with this high demand and population growth it will not be enough.

"The only immediate solution is nuclear energy. The GCC countries should look at it as a whole to be stronger in negotiations and to reduce the risks. Not all the GCC countries need to go nuclear. It could be done as clusters and they can share the benefits."

Saleh Al Awaji, Saudi Arabia's deputy minster for electricity agrees that the nuclear option needs to be given serious thought: "Due to the huge demand for both water and power and also the huge consumption of the conventional energy sources, oil and gas, the decision makers for the GCC are looking at different energy sources and diversifying energy sources in the region and in my opinion nuclear is the best option.As the GCC leader [Saudi] has a team negotiating with IAEA for the feasibility of using nuclear in the future.

The huge consumption of oil and gas nowadays is pushing us towards this option in the next ten years.

"In Saudi Arabia, we consume more than 1.5 million barrels of oil equivalent of energy per day for power and water production and that is expected to double in the coming 15 years.

"Bearing that in mind I think we have no choice but to look at other energy options and perhaps nuclear is the best option.

Cautious Qatar

But Yousuf Ahmed Janahi, corporate planning and business development manager, Kahramaa, takes a more cautious view.

"We have to diversify our sources of energy, and we have to decide what the right mixes are for secure, alternative supplies," he says. "You cannot rely on gas for ever - it is not a sustainable source of energy.

However, there are still technical issues with nuclear that the smaller countries have to face and that is why Qatar is not finalised on this issue.

"Related to network stability, with the GCC interconnection, that has eased now, but it has still not been properly addressed and our network is not ready for nuclear power plants.

"And another issue is the fuel cycles, you need treaties and international agreements, the issues that come with nuclear are different to a thermal plant. One driver of nuclear is the economies of size and so our demands individually maybe not suit nuclear power.

"In our technical judgment the GCC project is a more feasible way forward," Janahi concludes. "It is best if it is a GCC plant and not individual country's plant for it to be economical, reliable and to have a strong network to support it.

Clearly, governments the world over are taking another look at nuclear technology in the belief that it should be part of their future energy mix.

It just remains to be seen how much convincing the wider public will need to accept the dawning of a new nuclear era.

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