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,

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