Advanced nuclear reactors hold promise of clean energy for Gulf countries

Advanced reactors will likely be ready for deployment within one to two decades, setting the stage for major technological competition among powerful geopolitical rivals. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 July 2019

Advanced nuclear reactors hold promise of clean energy for Gulf countries

  • The case for investing in advanced nuclear reactors as an alternative energy source is compelling
  • Russia and China have an advantage in the development of advanced reactors thanks to state financial backing

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia will be one of a handful of countries expected to receive state-of-the-art advanced nuclear reactors from China and Russia, according to a new report.

The report, “Advancing Nuclear  Innovation: Responding to Climate Change and Strengthening Global Security,” was commissioned by the Global Nexus Initiative. This is a project established by the Partnership for Global Security, a Washington DC-based think tank, and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which represents the US nuclear energy industry. It is a publicly available assessment of the non-proliferation, security, and geopolitical characteristics of advanced nuclear-reactor technology.

The report, which took 16 experts over a year to produce, says that advanced reactors will likely be ready for deployment within one to two decades, setting the stage for major technological competition among powerful geopolitical rivals.

Although complicated by politics, the economic case for countries to invest in civil nuclear reactors as part of a mix of alternative energy sources is compelling. The Global Nexus Initiative report says the international community should strive to make sure that any race for market share among geopolitical competitors strengthens nuclear governance rather than weakens it.

“In order to meet the energy and climate challenges which the world faces, advanced reactors should be ready for deployment in the 2025 to 2030 framework,” said John Bernhard, a senior associate at the Partnership for Global Security who earlier served as Denmark’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“These reactors will generally have various advantages — they are smaller and more flexible than traditional reactors, which means inter alia that in many countries, including Saudi Arabia, they can be deployed in remote and arid areas.”

IN NUMBERS

40% - Percentage of Saudi Arabia’s electricity produced by burning oil in 2016

9% - Percentage of electricity used by Kingdom for desalination of sea water

27.3 - Saudi Arabia’s combined target in gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2024

40% - Percentage rise expected in Saudi electricity demand between 2019 and 2030

2x - Fuel burned by Saudi Electricity Company during summer months as during the rest of the year

Saudi Arabia’s growing electricity needs are currently met almost entirely by oil and natural gas. In 2016, for example, 40 percent of its electricity came from oil. The result is a loss of potential export revenue. What is more, Saudi Arabia expects a 40 percent jump in electricity demand between 2019 and 2030, according to Khalid Al-Falih, the energy minister.

Electricity use will rise in the Kingdom due to the ongoing growth of urban areas and plans to develop a strong manufacturing sector. At the same time, according to the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA), nine percent of the electricity is used for desalination, on which Gulf countries are heavily dependent in the absence of fresh-water sources.

Compared with traditional nuclear reactors, the advanced ones can offer reduced construction time and costs, and a wider variety of sizes and outputs for different locations and applications.

“Besides emission-free electricity generation, they may help in desalination of sea water, which could provide a new source of fresh water to areas in need,” Bernhard said.

“A general benefit of nuclear energy is its potential role in producing carbon-dioxide emission-free electricity for a number of purposes. For the foreseeable future, renewable energy sources like wind and sun will probably not be able to deliver the output needed, such as in industrial development.”

Nuclear-energy experts say advanced reactors offer interesting new possibilities, especially for nuclear newcomers such as Saudi Arabia.

“From a climate-change standpoint, this may be a valuable contribution to the achievement of the Paris Agreement goals from some of the biggest oil-producing countries,” Bernhard said. “I would expect that for various reasons, several Gulf states will be interested in including nuclear energy, partly from advanced reactors.”




The economic case for countries to invest in civil nuclear reactors as part of a mix of alternative energy sources is compelling. (Shutterstock)

A case in point is Saudi Arabia. Among the many goals of its Vision 2030 is a reduction in dependency on oil revenues. To this end, the government has set ambitious goals for renewables, such as 27.3 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2024.

According to Lady Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, advanced nuclear reactors are modern, safer, smaller, more convenient and compact. So, “if a country like Saudi Arabia is starting a nuclear program, it might as well start with the best new technology on the market because that’s a great advantage,” she told Arab News. “Saudi Arabia starts with a clean slate and it’s a very fortunate position to be in.”

With their nuclear-export strategy linked to their geopolitical ambitions, Russia and China have an advantage in the development of advanced reactors thanks to state financial backing.

Bernhard said: “Several countries with a nuclear energy tradition and industry are involved in the development of advanced reactors.

“At the moment, it seems that in particular Russia and China have positioned themselves strongly, because of years of experience in this field and state involvement in financing.

“There is a clear geopolitical angle to this. For instance, the sale and servicing of new facilities normally will promote and uphold strong political and economic relations between the providing and the receiving countries for a long period of time.”

The peaceful use of nuclear energy has been globally important for more than 60 years, resulting in 452 nuclear reactor units in 32 countries, most of them in Europe, North America, East Asia, and South Asia.

“Nuclear energy is clean and generates 24/7 so it’s a good companion to sun and wind. Renewables such as solar and wind are excellent sources of energy but dependent on weather conditions, which aren’t always stable,” said Lady Judge, who is also a member of the International Advisory Board for the development of nuclear energy in the UAE.

“So you need to have a stable force of clean energy which is available around the clock to back up any other system of power generation.”

Of course there is no glossing over the importance of the newcomers ensuring, in cooperation with the IAEA, that their nuclear facilities, whether advanced or traditional, live up to the highest standards and requirements with regard to security.

Nuclear technology can have dual use, peaceful or weaponized. An extensive and effective international safeguards regime, implemented by the IAEA, exists to contain the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons.

However, because of their unique features, advanced reactors do not easily fit into the existing national regulatory or international governance regimes, according to the Global Nexus Initiative’s report. In fact, they pose new challenges for the safeguards system.

As such, they will be subject to new security measures to help prevent a hostile outside attack, nuclear terrorism and insider sabotage. “These new technological challenges must be effectively addressed,” the authors of “Advancing Nuclear Innovation” say. “Several countries are focused on developing advanced reactors, including the US, Canada, South Korea, the UK, France, Russia and China. But the lack of a developed regulatory system and regulator experience is a challenge for all nations.”

As advanced nuclear reactors move through the design and development phase, it is also vital to have well-developed test beds to demonstrate the technology, the report says, adding that Russia and China have an advantage in this area.

According to Dr. Peter Bode, a former associate professor in nuclear science and technology at Delft University in the Netherlands, the use of nuclear-power plants in the future energy mix is beyond debate.

“Solar, wind and other renewables will not be sufficient,” he said. “But the future of nuclear in the region is positive, with plants in the UAE expected to be operational soon and used as an example that will quickly be followed by others.”

In a region where the future of oil and gas is unknown, nuclear power is expected to play a significant role. “It is a good companion, even currently, and certainly in the future,” Lady Judge said. 

“And that feeling of energy security and energy independence, which nuclear brings, is one which many countries in the Gulf would like to share.”

 

*An earlier version of this article had stated that Saudi Arabia had set a combined goal of 9.5 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2023. The figure has since been revised by the Saudi government.


Egypt’s once-reviled street dogs get chance at a better life

Updated 20 February 2020

Egypt’s once-reviled street dogs get chance at a better life

  • Shehata says his teams have treated some 10,000 stray dogs over the last few years
  • After centuries of stigma, the street dogs of Egypt are finding popular acceptance

CAIRO: Karim Hegazi spends his days in a Cairo clinic taking care of animals long considered a menace in Egypt.

Stray dogs roam in almost every Cairo neighborhood — lurking in construction sites, scavenging through trash and howling nightly atop parked cars. The government says there’s around 15 million of them. They bite some 200,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization, and spread rabies, one of the world’s most lethal diseases.

And if that wasn’t reason enough to feel revulsion toward dogs, a famous Islamic saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad warns that angels won’t enter your home if there’s a dog inside.

Yet after centuries of stigma, the street dogs of Egypt are finding popular acceptance, and along with it, surging grassroots support. That includes adoption and medical care, as well as spaying and neutering to keep them from producing more puppies on the streets. Volunteers armed with giant fishing nets and tranquilizer darts embark on regular missions to catch, vaccinate and sterilize dogs before letting them loose.

These efforts are making inroads against the prevailing government policy of extermination by poison.

“I’ve seen a major shift ... people are seeing a value in strays,” said Hegazi, 32, from his veterinary hospital in the upscale suburb of Maadi. He says he’s no longer treating just foreign pooches, but also a growing number of adopted “baladi” dogs, the once-reviled Egyptian street breed. Even pious Muslim clients are taking in street dogs. Hegazi says they often reconcile their religious beliefs and love of dogs by keeping them in grassy yards or on rooftops.

Egypt’s upper and middle classes have increasingly adopted Western-inspired ideas of dog ownership. Pet hotels, cafes and grooming emporiums are sprouting up in major Egyptian cities. Fueled by the rise of social media, enthusiasm for Cairo’s dogs is “moving beyond snob culture,” said local advocate Amina Abaza.

A Facebook forum for vet recommendations exploded into a community of 13,000 pet lovers trading stray rescue stories. Dozens of new shelters coordinate adoptions online, flooding Instagram feeds with images of abandoned puppies.

What has surfaced online is spilling into the streets. Some of Cairo’s more well-to-do districts are mobilizing spay and neuter teams to counter what advocates describe as gruesome government methods to control the dog population.

The General Organization for Veterinary Services, an arm of the agricultural ministry, routinely sends authorities to kill strays by scattering poison in streets overnight, according to a dozen activists and residents. They say they’ve woken up to find carcasses piled on curbs, or sick dogs wailing in distress.

“It’s a horrible way to die,” said Mohamed Shehata, founder of Egyptian Vets for Animal Care, or EVAC. It’s the country’s first spay and neuter program, also based in Maadi.

The government organization did not respond to questions about its policy. But in a recent report, it described street dogs as a “time bomb that threatens our children,” and defended the “merciful killing of dogs that are harmful to people,” citing Islamic law.

After the French invaded Egypt in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops spent two nights shooting all of Cairo’s street dogs because of their raucous noise. According to American historian Juan Cole, they were likely employed as informal watchdogs in the city’s winding alleys. Major dog eradication campaigns in Egypt stemmed from the city’s explosive growth in the early 1800s, when dogs became scavengers dependent on Cairo’s ubiquitous mounds of garbage, said Alan Mikhail, professor of Ottoman history at Yale University. As part of a public hygiene push, authorities trapped, shot and poisoned dogs en masse.

These days, a consensus is emerging among experts that “poison is not a real solution to rabies or to overpopulation,” said Shehata. A toxic substance called citrinin is used to kill off dogs, but most of it ends up seeping into soil and cement, poisoning gardeners, garbage workers and children playing in the street. Culling street dogs doesn’t stop the spread of disease either, he added, as over 70% of the stray population must be vaccinated to attain herd immunity.

Shehata described his group’s spaying and neutering efforts as “a more humane, scientific, and effective way,” to regulate the country’s strays. His group kicked off
Egypt’s first mass rabies vaccination drive this month, inspired by the WHO’s goal to eliminate human deaths from dog-transmitted rabies by 2030.

On a misty morning last weekend, teams of volunteers scampered after the wild dogs in Maadi, bolting down wide boulevards and trash-littered train tracks. A cacophony of yelps and barks filled the air as terrified dogs were trapped in nets, then injected with vaccines. Neighbors woken by the noise watched from their balconies in bewilderment. The method may appear ruthless, but Shehata insists it’s for the best, and keeps the dogs rabies-immune for a year.

Volunteers also spay and neuter strays at the clinic. The dogs are dropped off where they were caught, with a notch cut in their ear to show they’ve been sterilized. The model is being replicated in at least five central Cairo districts, where local groups say they’ve seen dog populations stabilize or decline and the threat of rabies wane, although the government doesn’t make rabies infection figures public.

Vigilante hunters still scatter poison in dog food and request government exterminators, said Rasha Hussein, a Maadi resident who runs a vet training center outside Cairo. But she said efforts by groups like EVAC have encouraged compassion. Residents now coordinate meal deliveries and medical checks for ear-tagged dogs that have become a mainstay in their areas. Just five years ago, EVAC volunteers were chased out of the neighborhood.

Shehata says his teams have treated some 10,000 stray dogs over the last few years.

Egypt’s push follows successes in similar developing countries. Animal welfare proponents hope these gains can spark a worldwide movement.

Turkey’s cities, which once promoted systematic slaughter of street dogs, now provide strays with government-sponsored medical evaluations, sterilization and shelter. Indian provinces historically ravaged by rabies, where Shehata trained, have driven down death rates through coordinated campaigns.

But leading veterinarians say Egypt’s efforts still lack state funding or a legal framework to protect animals, meaning the future of the country’s street dogs remains uncertain.

“We will do our best to reach our targets,” said Hegazi while carrying his next patient, barking and snorting, into the exam room. “But it’ll take a much longer time.”