Caren Firouz / Reuters A view of the reactor at the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, 746 miles south of Tehran, February 25, 2009.

Nuclear Power to the People

The Middle East's New Gold Rush

There’s a gold rush in the Middle East, but it isn’t gold that prospectors are seeking. It’s reactor sales; these have been talked about for decades, but they’re now picking up steam. So far, Russia has taken the lead. Having built the region’s only operational nuclear power plant—Iran’s Bushehr reactor—it will begin construction in Turkey later this year or next on four reactors, with energy set to begin flowing in the early 2020s. Russia has also stuck agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan, and it is seeking to enter the Saudi market.

Other countries are now trying to make up for lost time. South Korea has already contracted to build four plants in the United Arab Emirates, with the first expected to come online in 2017. And Argentina, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom are among those pursuing their own agreements for reactors, component parts and/or service deals. The United States, subject to Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act—which requires that nuclear recipients adhere to a set of nonproliferation criteria to receive transfers of nuclear material, equipment, or components—finds itself more constrained in exploiting the markets. Still, in addition to supplying the Emirates with component and engineering support services under the 123 Agreement, the U.S. Commerce Department reports that GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse have signed contracts with Exelon to pursue reactor construction in Saudi Arabia, presuming that a 123 Agreement will be negotiated.

Whatever the energy promise of the peaceful atom, evidently lost in the boom are the security risks inherent in setting up reactors in the Middle East—and not just the commonly voiced fear that reactors are harbingers of weapons. The real risk is the possibility that the plants themselves will become targets or hostages of nihilist Middle Eastern militants, which could result in Chernobyl or Fukushima-like meltdowns. 

Buddhist monks offer prayers for victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami at Kitaizumi beach in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, March 10, 2012.

Buddhist monks offer prayers for victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami at Kitaizumi beach in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, March 10, 2012.

How big is the risk? History paints a complex picture. On the one hand, no terrorist or country has mounted a successful attack on an operating nuclear power reactor. The closest example came during the Yugoslav civil war when Serbian military aircraft buzzed Slovenia’s Krško power reactor. But no attack followed and nothing came of Serbian nationalists’ threats to sabotage the plant.

But the former Yugoslavia should give only cold comfort to the Middle East. It remains the only region in which attacks on reactors have taken place. Fortunately, the strikes—Iraq’s repeated aerial bombardment of Bushehr during its 1980s war with Iran and Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s Osirak and Syria’s al Kibar reactors in 1981 and 2007—destroyed plants under construction. With no nuclear materials in the plants, there was no nuclear fallout. The only military actions against an operating plant, Israel’s small Dimona weapons reactor, came in 1991 and 2014, when Iraq and Hamas respectively attempted to bombard the installation with missiles and rockets but failed.

The reactors, though, are still attractive targets. Hezbollah has threatened to strike Dimona with its missile arsenal should war break out with Israel. Iran has announced that the plant is on its hit list as well. Given the mayhem that Islamic State (also called ISIS) and kindred groups have sown in the region and their end-of-days philosophy, the plausibility of an attempted attack on an operating nuclear power plant cannot be denied. And given the (at best) mixed performance of Middle East defense forces, plant security cannot be guaranteed.

If terrorists did strike a nuclear power plant in the Middle East, the nuclear fallout would depend on the integrity of reactors’ own containment systems and the ability of emergency personnel to suppress the emissions. If terrorists did strike a nuclear power plant in the Middle East, the nuclear fallout would depend on the integrity of reactors’ own containment systems and the ability of emergency personnel to suppress the emissions, a difficult challenge for even the most advanced countries, as Japan found in Fukushima. Ongoing terrorism, civil strife, or war at the time the reactor is compromised would only complicate matters.

The security risk might well be worth taking if the region actually faced dire energy shortages. The oil- and gas-rich countries—Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others—do face depleting fossil fuel resources. Other countries in the region, including Egypt and Jordan, remain fossil fuel limited, but all nations in the Middle East share an increasingly practical alternative—solar energy

A tree stands amid electricity pylons in the desert in Dubai November 20, 2009.

A tree stands amid electricity pylons in the desert in Dubai November 20, 2009.

For a number of countries, including Algeria, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, solar power is already a growing part of the domestic energy profile. In 2013, the Emirates inaugurated what was then the world’s largest solar generating plant. In 2014 and 2015, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan made commitments to dramatically expand solar construction, and Saudi Arabia laid out plans to generate a third of its electricity from the sun by 2040. But Riyadh also wants to build up to 18 nuclear power reactors that, in addition to reducing the kingdom’s reliance of fossil fuels, would provide a base level of energy to compensate for the lack of stored solar energy at night. 

It will be difficult to continue justifying nuclear energy in that way, though, as battery storage improves and solar plants become more efficient and cheaper to build than nuclear stations. Gas and oil power stations will continue to remain as backups.

Decision-makers in the Middle East should ask themselves whether playing Russian roulette with nuclear reactors is worth the risk. The time is now, before reactors proliferate, for the region’s energy planners to think again.

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