Wednesday’s decision by the Islamic Republic of Iran to break the restrictions of the Iran nuclear deal is a further reminder that neither Iran, nor for that matter Saudi Arabia, needs nuclear power. Nor, for that matter, does any other state in the gas-soaked, sun-drenched Middle East, where civil nuclear programs are simply nuclear bomb starter kits.
Instead of straining to control these programs, or even facilitating them, the U.S. should encourage less risky, cheaper, clean non-nuclear alternatives.
The case for nuclear power in the Middle East has never been strong. First, the national electrical systems there are relatively small. Put large amounts of electricity (nuclear or non-nuclear) on their grids and you risk overloading them and causing blackouts. This is particularly worrisome for nuclear reactors whose safe operation depends on a steady, external supply of electricity to run their coolant and safety systems (think Fukushima).
Second, because large reactors can be used to make nuclear explosive materials, they’re prime military targets. Iran, Israel, and the United States each attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor (Israel successfully). Iraq bombed Iran’s Bushehr reactor. Egypt and Iraq targeted Israel’s Dimona reactor. Israel successfully bombed Syria’s reactor at Al Kibar, and, more recently, the Iranian-backed Houthis claimed they fired missiles at the UAE’s nuclear reactors. Any such strikes risk radiation releases and rattling even the strongest of regimes to its roots (think the Soviet Union’s political meltdown, catalyzed, in no small part, by Chernobyl). There is also the danger of insider and cyberattacks that could result in catastrophe.
Finally, nuclear power is expensive. The Emirates bought four reactors in 2009 at $6 billion per reactor, while Japan’s recent offer to build similar units for Turkey ran $11 billion per copy. Iran’s reactor at Bushehr cost just as much. What might nuclear electricity cost in the Middle East? The latest estimates are nine cents per kilowatt hour. That’s twice what base-load, natural-gas-fired electricity costs and more than four times what the lowest solar power bids are running. Even onshore wind power is cheaper.
But there’s more: Emerging renewable and natural gas technologies promise to make non-nuclear electricity even cheaper and cleaner. Thus, the UAE doesn’t plan to buy any more nuclear reactors. Instead, by 2030, 25% of its electricity will be solar. During the day, photo voltaic panels will feed its grid with electricity costing a fraction of what nuclear runs. When the sun fades, the UAE will exploit concentrated solar power, which uses solar heat stored during the day to generate electricity from late afternoon through early morning. The UAE is currently building the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, capable of generating 700 megawatts. CSP costs more than traditional solar, but still less than nuclear.
By 2030, nearly all the remainder of the UAE’s electricity, some 61%, will be natural-gas-fired. Burning natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than oil or coal. Soon, with technology several private firms are funding and demonstrating in Texas, gas-fired plants may not emit any. A new process, known as the Allam Cycle, allows for the complete capture of the carbon dioxide without increasing the already-low costs of gas-fired electricity. The captured carbon dioxide also is valuable for making concrete, fertilizers, treating water, and extracting shale oil and gas—two fuels that Middle Eastern states interested in nuclear power are also keenly interested in tapping.
All of this suggests that efforts to build nuclear plants in Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Algeria, are dangerously misguided. When Washington encourages such pursuits, it accelerates an implicit arms race, even if the U.S. insists on additional safety measures. Whatever Riyadh has, Tehran will demand as part of the “better” nuclear deal the Trump administration wants someday to negotiate. Conversely, any concession made to Iran will become Riyadh’s next demand. Ditto, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, etc. What they’re buying is not an efficient source of energy; it’s an emergency option to build nuclear weapons.
To break this arms race, America should lead. First, it should stop hondling over dangerous nuclear projects in the region, urge Riyadh to drop its nuclear plans, and press Tehran and other nuclear supplier states to do the same. Second, it should encourage Middle Eastern nuclear power aspirants and nuclear suppliers to push less frightening, more economical non-nuclear alternatives.
In the short run, this will save billions of dollars. In the long-run, it will spare millions of lives.
Mark Dubowitz (@mdubowitz) is chief executive of Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2019).