Gulf trims nuclear power plans

Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation is due to start operating in 2017

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Ambitious plans for nuclear energy in the Gulf are foundering on technical and political challenges and the rise of renewables as a cost-effective alternative to conventional thermal electricity generation.

Saudi Arabia announced in 2011 that it planned to build 18GW of nuclear power generation capacity by 2032. The kingdom’s national transformation plan unveiled earlier this year says it will identify potential sites but omitted setting quantitative targets.

This is being interpreted as indicating that Saudi Arabia is keeping its options open despite forecasts that its energy demand will grow by at least 3 per cent a year for the foreseeable future.

The transformation programme in contrast said that the kingdom would double gas production by 2030. Saudi Arabia has also committed to developing 3.5GW of renewable energy generation capacity by 2020.

“…nuclear power facilities with capacity of just 5.6GW are under construction,” the Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation (Apicorp) said in a report about Middle East nuclear plans today. “Only a further 6.4GW are likely to come online by 2030. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2040, the region’s nuclear industry will account for only 3 per cent of electricity generation, with oil and gas accounting for 70 per cent.”

“(The) development of the nuclear sector to a level at which it competes with oil and natural gas will be both complex and expensive,” Apicorp said. “Countries with ambitions to build nuclear power plants will need to find funding, attract human capital and put in place clear and stable regulatory frameworks. Governments will need to prove to the global community that their nuclear programmes are peaceful and ensure public acceptance of their programmes…The political ramifications of a nuclear industry in the region also need to be addressed.”

Iran is the only Middle East country with nuclear power generation capacity in the form of the 1GW unit at Bushehr. Its plans to expand nuclear power were the main factor that precipitated international sanctions against the Islamic Republic in 2011 amid allegations, now found to be largely groundless, that it had a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Sanctions against Iran were relaxed in Janauary.

The UAE is building 5.6GW of nuclear capacity and this is due to start operating in 2017.

Oman, Qatar and Kuwait cancelled proposed nuclear projects in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

In 2014, Jordan selected Russia’s Rosatom to develop  two 1GW plants in Qusayr Amra, 70km southeast of Amman. Construction of the two reactors is scheduled to begin later this year, the first to start up in 2024 and the second in 2026 at a total cost of $10bn.

Recent dramatic falls in the cost of producing solar power is prompting a review of Gulf energy strategies. Dubai has announced plans to build 5GW of solar power capacity and has invited bids for a new 800MW unit. This may establish a model that other Gulf states will emulate and could lead to further revisions in Middle East nuclear power plans, analysts say.