Doubts over the availability of gas for power generation, growing demand for electricity, environmental concerns and the need to power desalination plants mean that many countries in the region are now planning to introduce nuclear into the energy mix.
There is a compelling argument for adding nuclear to the GCC energy mix.
Demand for electricity in the GCC is rising by an average of around 6% a year. But in some parts of the region it is much higher and likely to remain so despite the ongoing economic downswing. Demand growth in Qatar is running at 17% a year, with Dubai close behind at 16%.
Building nuclear reactors takes time and the states of the GCC may need a decade or more to train experts and carry out studies before they can develop nuclear energy.
A recent report by ratings agenecy Moody's says up to US $50bn could be spent in the GCC by 2015 in order to support an estimated increase in generation capacity of nearly 60,000 MW. Significant investments will also be needed to modernise transmission and distribution networks.
But add high per capita energy use and a desire to cash in on hydrocarbon exports to the equation and it is easy to see why the countries of the GCC are actively looking for alternative sources of power, including nuclear.
The benefits to the region are potentially huge; not only in terms of electricity supply but also to power the desalination plants that the region desperately needs.
Around 65% of the desalination plants that are in operation worldwide are located in the region. Most of these are dual-purpose multistage flash plants (MFP), producing power and water.
The cost-effectiveness of nuclear desalination varies from site to site but there is no technical reason why nuclear reactors could not supply heat or electricity or both to a desalination plant.
There is certainly a strong financial argument for nuclear as MSF plants energy intensive processes where the energy cost is a major component in the overall cost of desalination.Nuclear has an added cost advantage in that oil price fluctuations, which can be fairly dramatic as the past few months have illustrated, affect the cost of desalted water significantly, whereas nuclear power offers both long term availability and long term fuel price stability.
A further plus point is that nuclear has minimal environmental impact compared with conventional desalination processes.
Given the potential benefits, a joint plan among the six GCC member states to develop nuclear power makes sense, as they can share experiences and the high cost of developing plants.
Last December the GCC said it planned a joint civil atomic programme, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed in February to cooperate on a feasibility study on regional plans for a nuclear programme.
Addressing concerns that the GCC is looking to nuclear merely to keep up with regional rival Iran, secretary-general Abdul-Rahman al-Attiyah says the bloc would remain committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and pledged transparency in the nuclear energy development process.
The head of the IAEA Mohammed ElBaradei is supportive and says that the GCC has the right to use nuclear energy despite the region's rich hydrocarbon resources.
Speaking in Dubai on 16 November, ElBaradei noted that the GCC would be looking at small nuclear plants for desalination and power generation. "Nothing prevented ... the United States ... or the Soviet Union ... from developing nuclear energy while they were producing large quantities of oil," he said.
But building nuclear reactors takes time and the states of the GCC may need a decade or more to train experts and carry out studies before they can develop nuclear energy. If the GCC wishes to co-ordinate its nuclear plans on a regional basis then it will take longer still.
"Preparation in the long-term for the use of nuclear energy in desalination and power generation may not happen tomorrow but it may happen be within 10 years or 15 years," says El Baradei, "building up national expertise that will be ready and able to use this technology ... will be vital," he adds. First to finish
Although the GCC says it wants to work together on nuclear, the reality is that it is likely to be the states with the fastest-growing economies, and hence the greatest need for water and power that will be the first to get off the drawing board.
The UAE is currently leading the pack. It has signed an agreement with the US and released a white paper on nuclear policy.
Elsewhere, Qatar and Bahrain have similar agreements with France and the US respectively, while Saudi Arabia has also held exploratory talks with Washington.
The key question is which of the states in the GCC will be the first to grab the bull by the horns and actually start designing and building new nuclear plants. As things stand, the UAE is in pole position.
Qatar is pushing ahead with plans to add 65,000 MW of additional capacity by 2015 at a projected cost of US $5.5bn.This will more than double its present installed capacity but even this is unlikely to be enough to satisft the country's energy requirements.
The country is therefore looking at the possibility of adding up to 5400 MW of nuclear capacity between 2011 and 2036.
Another driver is that Qatar is fast becoming a leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). This makes it subject to long-term supply commitments that could limit its domestic consumption of hydrocarbons, making an even stronger case for adding some form of nuclear component to the energy mix.
Nuclear fuel bank
But while Qatar has been thinking about nuclear, the UAE has actually been getting the ball rolling and currently looks the GCC state most likely to commission a nuclear power station.
A nuclear plants typically takes a minimum of seven years to become fully operational from planning to completion. But in the UAE the numbers really do stack up with demand expected to exceed 40,800 MW by 2020 compared with current capacity of around 18,000MW.A high-profile donation of US $10 million to the IAEA's global nuclear fuel bank is jsut the latest indicator that the UAE will be going nuclear as soon as reasonably possible.
If the fuel bank ever takes off - more donations are still needed - it will effectively provide the UAE with access to enriched uranium, removing the need to build and operate a large number of centrifuges.
"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 Mohammed El Baradei.
Choosing the location for a nuclear plant is a clear sign of commitment and the UAE is currently looking at several sites.
Coastal sites are most liekly as nuclear power needs plenty of water and easy access to shipping.
If the UAE gives nuclear the green light it could have a fleet of atomic reactors in place by 2025, potentially providing up to half of the country's power requirements. But it won't come cheap, given that the price of a 1,500MW reactor is estimated to be around US $7 billion at current prices.
One potential site is the sparsely-populated coastline between Abu Dhabi and Ruwais where there is the possibility of building two nuclear power plants, 50 km apart. Fujairah has also been mentioned as a possible location for a nuclear power plant in the UAE.
While its nuclear plants are not as advanced, Kuwait is actively looking at a ramnge of fuel options to supply its power plants.
Over the long-term, the country expects to use a mix of fuels. Saad al-Shuwaib, CEO of Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, is not looking at wind and coal but says that solar energy as well as nuclear power were under consideration.
'All the GCC countries are thinking about [nuclear] and I'm sure when it is adopted Kuwait will be one of those involved,' he said. American backing
In May, outgoing US President George W Bush met with Saudi Arabia‘s King Abdullah and pledged support for the country's civil nuclear energy programme.
Saudi Arabia produces 7.5 million barrels of oil per day but seeks nuclear energy for use in industrial-scale desalinization and medicine and as an environmentally sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. The reached a similar agreement with Bahrain in March 2008.
Further afield, reactors are planned in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, but Egypt may just beat the UAE to the title of first nuclear powered Arab nation.
Egyptian power demand has been growing at average rate of 7% a year and the country faces worsening shortages.
The North African state has therefore decided revive the civilian nuclear power programme it froze following the accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986, with plans to build a nuclear power station at El-Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coast, within the next ten years at a cost of around US $1.5 billion. Cairo says it will seek foreign investment for the project.
Egypt currently maintains a small experimental nuclear reactor, which was investigated as part of an IAEA probe in 2005 that concluded that Egypt had conducted atomic research, but that the research did not aim to develop nuclear weapons and did not include uranium enrichment.
Egypt admitted to failing to disclose the full extent of its nuclear research activities to the UN's watchdog. Officials said the failure arose because of a misunderstanding over exactly what had to be disclosed.
The French connection
Jordan imports around 95% of its energy needs, is seeking alternative energy sources, such as the use of nuclear power to generate electricity and desalinate water.
The country aims to bring its first nuclear plant on line by 2015, hoping to supply 30% of energy production by 2030.
Jordan is in initial talks with France's Areva over plans to build a 110 MW reactor in the energy-poor country. Amman says Areva could extract around 130,000 tonnes of uranium from Jordan's 1.2 billion tonnes of phosphate reserves and build a nuclear reactor.For all the latest energy and oil news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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