Nuclear power could be key to climate change challenge
The world has had an uncomfortable relationship with nuclear power from the very beginning, when early work on nuclear fission became part of the US-led effort to build the first atomic weapons, subsequently used against Japan in 1945.
The peaceful civilian nuclear industry — through which the world could generate all the energy it needed by using the power of the atom — could never quite shake off those sinister origins.
Since then, accidents in places like Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan seemed only to reinforce the belief that, while the potential for limitless energy was there, the danger of it all going tragically wrong was too high.
In the Middle East, the peaceful use of nuclear power got wrapped up in the expansionist ambitions of the Iranian regime, which seems hell-bent on developing its own nuclear weapon in the face of international opposition.
But now, under pressure from the race against climate change and new technological advances in the nuclear sector, sentiment is perceptibly changing. Some countries — like France, Russia and China — never gave up the peaceful pursuit of nuclear power; others, like the US and Japan, are wondering whether to slow down the phase-out of atomic plants, or even to begin building the next generation, especially as parts of the world face an energy crisis.
In the Middle East, the situation was clouded by the fact that oil-producing countries were sitting on an abundance of hydrocarbon reserves and did not seem to need the nuclear option.
But economic and environmental arguments are now winning the day.
The UAE was an early adopter of a peaceful nuclear power generation program and its Barakah plant is already generating electricity as part of a plan that will see 85 percent of Abu Dhabi’s clean electricity coming from the plant by 2025, according to the CEO of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, was also an early enthusiast for nuclear power. The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy was set up in 2010 to oversee a program that envisaged two big nuclear power plants as part of the Kingdom’s broader renewables strategy.
Saudi Arabia’s thinking on nuclear power has crystalized just as many energy experts are won over to its potential.
That was given a boost by the Vision 2030 strategy for diversification, which put renewables at the heart of national policymaking, and received a further stimulus last year, when the Saudi Green Initiative was launched.
The Kingdom’s thinking on nuclear power has crystalized just as many energy experts are won over to its potential to satisfy future energy needs.
Jason Bordoff, dean of the Climate School at New York’s Columbia University, said this month: “There is growing recognition that the pathway to net-zero emissions will be faster, easier and cheaper if nuclear energy is part of the mix of options.”
The International Energy Agency, noting that nuclear power currently comprises about 10 percent of global electricity generation, said it has “historically been one of the largest global contributors of carbon-free electricity.”
The message is: If the net-zero targets are to be met, at least some of the global energy mix will have to come from nuclear, which is the ultimate net-zero fuel source.
There will be public objections to overcome, with that history of tragic accidents leaving a deep footprint. But the technology behind the building and operation of nuclear power plants has advanced dramatically, reducing costs, waste and safety concerns.
Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, for example, is working on high-tech nuclear plans via his TerraPower organization to “produce a more affordable, secure and environmentally friendly form of energy.”
Furthermore, modern nuclear reactors are increasingly different from the archetypal domed monstrosities seen in the movies. Small modular reactors can be mass-produced in parts and assembled on site in a kind of IKEA-style version of the nuclear process.
While Saudi Arabia has yet to launch a definitive program to build nuclear reactors, all the signs are that such a plan is on the runway ready for imminent takeoff.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister, recently highlighted the precious reserves of uranium — a key resource in the nuclear process — the Kingdom enjoys and also noted the potential for “pink” hydrogen, which is generated by nuclear energy.
With the climate change clock ticking, nuclear power’s time is coming.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai