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.


Turkey’s Erdogan called out for endangering ‘US national security’

Updated 13 November 2019

Turkey’s Erdogan called out for endangering ‘US national security’

  • Strong letter by House Foreign Affairs Committee members urges withdrawal of White House invitation
  • Residents of northeastern Syria are fearful and the humanitarian situation is a cause for concern

ERBIL, DUBAI: In a humiliating rebuke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the lead-up to his visit to Washington, members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives have written a strong letter urging US President Donald Trump to withdraw the White House invitation.

The letter says Erdogan’s “decision to invade northern Syria on Oct. 9 has had disastrous consequences for US national security, has led to deep divisions in the NATO alliance, and caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground.”

The Congress members said: “Turkish forces have killed civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a critical US partner in the fight against (Daesh), and displaced over one hundred thousand people from their homes in northern Syria.”

The committee’s concerns are well founded. After weeks of instability and violence following the Turkish incursion, the situation in northeastern Syria remains tense despite the implementation of a ceasefire and an agreement between Russia and Turkey that compelled Kurdish-led SDF troops to withdraw from the border.

According to multiple sources, residents of this part of Syria are fearful for their future and the humanitarian situation is a cause for concern.

Since Turkey launched its assault, shortly after the US troop withdrawal from the border, approximately 180,000 Syrian civilians, primarily Kurds, have been displaced from their homes.

Turkey, with the help of its Syrian militia proxies, has carved out a large swath of territory — about 120 kilometers wide — that extends from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ayn (known by Kurds as Serekaniye).

On Oct. 31 at a gathering in Istanbul, Erdogan boasted that the “safe zones” were the most peaceful and livable places in Syria today. “We did not provide all these services with any expectation, but as our human and moral responsibilities,” he said, adding “when we look around, we see only humans, souls and life.”

Most Kurds of northeastern Syria see the situation very differently. In their view, what Erdogan has undertaken in the name of resettling millions of Syrian refugees in the so-called safe zone is a giant demographic-engineering exercise.

What has reinforced their suspicions have been incidents of Turkish-backed Syrian militias looting civilian homes and businesses, clips of which have flooded social media since the first days of the Turkish invasion.

Sounding a direct warning via Twitter, Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s general commander, said: “There are efforts by Turkey to achieve its demographic-change goals in Northeast Syria through international organizations. The UN head’s willingness to form a team to study the proposal and engage in discussions with Turkish authorities on the issue is deeply worrying and dangerous.”

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri heads a charity called Joint Help for Kurdistan that is distributing humanitarian aid in the region. As someone who is familiar with the facts on the ground, she says “the humanitarian situation could not have been worse.”

She says because northeastern Syria has been practically under an embargo for years, “it’s very hard to find even the most basic items in significant quantities. Even finding and buying simple clothing for the displaced is very difficult and expensive.”

Ghafouri has talked to many people displaced from different areas. Some spoke of how they tried to return to their homes but the presence of the militias, whose roadside executions of Kurds have been filmed and posted on the web, acted as a deterrent.

Among the displaced Syrians Ghafouri spoke to were a pharmacist and a doctor from Ras Al-Ayn who tried to return to their homes.

“They told me about another pharmacist they knew who was arrested along with his son by these militias, who demanded a large ransom for their release,” she said. After being detained for eight hours, both were released without the ransom being paid. Instead, the militiamen “stole everything they could find in their home and their pharmacy.”

The general atmosphere, as inferred by Ghafouri, is one of “suffering and hopelessness.”

Alluding to the resettlement of Arabs on confiscated Kurdish land by Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad back in the mid-1970s, she said: “This is not the first time efforts have been made to change demographics.”

Ghafouri said that even today, on the road from Hasakah to Derik, “you can see where Arab villages have been built on the best agricultural lands in the region.”

On Oct. 24, in an interview to Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT, Erdogan came close to making the case for ethnic cleansing. “What is important is to prepare a controlled life in this enormous area, and the most suitable people for it are Arabs,” he said. “These areas are not suitable for the lifestyle of Kurds … because these areas are virtually desert.”

In actual fact, northeastern Syria, where the country’s largest Kurdish-majority areas are located, is also where Syria’s best agricultural lands happen to be. The region is often referred to as the country’s “breadbasket.”

Ghafouri believes the events of the past several weeks are “all about destroying the landscape and demography of the Kurdish regions for good,” adding: “It has been partially accomplished already.”

Besides Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime have also sent troops to the Turkey-Syria border, but locals Ghafouri spoke to “don’t see the Russian deployment as a cause for hope.”

She said: “Despite feeling betrayed by America, people I’ve talked to there trust Russia even less. It seems that with Russian support, the Syrian regime has achieved what it wants — namely the ‘Arabization’ of predominantly Kurdish areas with the help of Turkey.”

In recent weeks, more than 14,000 Syrians have fled the conflict in the country’s northeast to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, which already hosts a huge refugee population.

Jotiar Adil, a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said the KRG “does not have the capacity to handle and care for a new wave of refugees coming across the border on its own.

“Therefore, we ask the international community to take a serious stance on this and assist us in sheltering and providing for these refugees.”

While the Russian-Syrian deployment along the border in northeastern Syria is expected to lessen the likelihood of a total Turkish takeover, the agreement with Russia permits Turkey to retain forces in Syrian territories under its control and states: “Joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.”

Nevertheless, Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of the Middle East department at the University of Oklahoma, rules out the worst case scenarios, saying: “Erdogan’s resettlement plan is dead. The Russians will fight it and so will the Syrians. There may be some resettlement around Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn, but beyond that, it is hard to imagine that right now. Even in this area, it is doubtful there will be any large-scale refugee resettlement.

“The situation will not be like in Afrin, where the Kurdish population could be chased out to make way for Arab refugees.”

However, the US lawmakers who have called on the White House to disinvite Erdogan believe “his calamitous actions in Syria follow a long list of disconcerting steps”.

Reminding Trump about the resolutions passed last month by the House warning of sanctions against Turkey, the statement said: “Given this situation, we believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the US, and we urge you to rescind this invitation.”