Cooperating on Nuclear Power:
Regional Management of Energy Initiatives
By Selim Can Sazak
February 28, 2018
As the world grows thirstier for energy by the day, and climate change adds urgency to the need to find new sources of kilowatts while cutting carbon emissions, many countries have stepped up their efforts to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and diversify their energy mix. In the West, the move toward a postcarbon economy is largely associated with alternative energy sources like solar and wind. Nuclear energy has fallen out of favor, synonymous with catastrophe (Chernobyl) and intractable cleanups (Fukushima).
Despite all of the anxiety around nuclear power, however, many parts of the developing world, and not a small number of energy scientists, continue to look to nuclear plants as viable and powerful ways to produce zero-carbon-emission energy. And perhaps nowhere has its popularity as a clean energy option endured and grown as in the Middle East. Fission power uniquely responds to the region’s growing and interconnected challenges surrounding water, energy, and food—challenges that climate change and rapid urbanization are compounding. For the Gulf’s petro-monarchies, as well as for high-population countries like Egypt, this expanding nexus of problems is especially worrisome, since their political stability partly depends on a vast and costly system of price subsidies that is increasingly unsustainable in the face of growing demand and declining hydrocarbon revenues. Energy-importing market economies like Turkey and Jordan are also in search of greater energy independence and new sources of economic growth. It makes for a delicate balance, with energy production at the fulcrum. Nuclear power—clean and putatively cheap in the long run—provides an alluring solution.
Yet even as the appeal of nuclear energy to the Middle East is clear, its potential spread also causes anxiety around the world and tensions between neighbors.This is not to say that the rising nuclear ambitions in the Middle East are a charade for more sinister intentions. Empirical evidence does not support the argument that countries pursue civilian nuclear power to augment nuclear weapons programs, at least from the beginning. Civilian nuclear power, however, inevitably contributes to a state’s capacity to build nuclear weapons—its “nuclear latency.” The line between civilian and military nuclear programs is extraordinarily thin: It is relatively easy for a country with an advanced civil nuclear program to move from developing power stations to nuclear weapons. With some planning, discretion, and luck, a country can easily use the fuel and byproducts of light-water nuclear power reactors—enriched uranium and plutonium—to produce nuclear bombs. Indeed, since Britain developed its atomic bomb in 1952, all nuclear aspirants have hidden their military programs behind the mask of peaceful nuclear power, to one extent or another. This gives rise to a potential security dilemma: a state cannot risk not reacting to the possible increase in an adversary’s nuclear capabilities, but in reacting to it the state produces circumstances that lead to a nuclear race spiraling out of control. Furthermore, poorly regulated technology could fall into the hands of terrorists or black market traders. In the region’s perennially turbulent political environment, it is impossible to ponder the spread of nuclear energy and the growth of nuclear latency without also raising fears about nuclear weapon proliferation and rising insecurity.
Even aside from the security concerns, the Middle East’s nuclear journey is destined to be a bumpy one. Building a nuclear power plant is neither cheap nor easy. Even in countries that have a long history of nuclear energy development and strong institutional, regulatory, managerial, and educational systems, nuclear power projects rarely go as planned. Cost overruns are common, as are delays and cancellations. Middle Eastern countries’ social, economic, and political fragility makes nuclear energy progress in the region all the more doubtful. Moreover, the Middle East’s race for nuclear power also serves as a theater for the geopolitical competition between China, Russia, and the United States, which will certainly complicate nuclear ambitions.
One pathway may enable the Middle East to more effectively deal with these pressing challenges, allowing interested countries to enjoy the promises of nuclear energy while ensuring security and safety and avoiding political impasse. That pathway is regional cooperation. Indeed, the spread of nuclear energy in the Middle East, while fraught, would essentially be salutary for the region’s economies, environment, and security—if the development of the sector is pursued in the right way, with concerted efforts toward mutual aims and collaboration.
Proposing cooperation in a region where many neighbors can barely coordinate basic diplomacy—when they are not actually sworn enemies—may seem quixotic. But in fact, because of the nature of the risks, challenges, and opportunities associated with nuclear power, cooperation in the development of the sector is uniquely possible and can even have positive repercussions in other vital sectors. This report argues that effective cooperation on nuclear energy in the Middle East will need to tackle multiple angles at once, some of them more indirect or less official. Formal agreements have a role, but piecemeal and highly targeted forms of collaboration will also be important, as will be the creation of both a culture of collective knowledge advancement and a community of regional experts without strong national or political affiliations. By integrating nuclear energy cooperation with other efforts, Middle Eastern countries can also help to solve other problems.
The report provides an overview of nuclear energy development in the Middle East, and then describes the various incentives driving nuclear ambitions in the region. It then identifies and discusses four specific opportunities for cooperation—foreign agricultural investment, educational mobility, scientific research cooperation, and multilateral resource management—and how they could be implemented. In conclusion, it summarizes these findings and their implications for regional and international security.
Why Is the Middle East Going Nuclear?
As noted, nuclear energy remains popular in emerging economies even though it has fallen somewhat out of favor in more developed countries. As of September 2017, fifty-six reactors were under construction in fifteen countries. China, the world’s fourth-largest nuclear energy producer, accounts for more than one-third of this growth, with twenty reactors under construction. Other fast-growing Asian economies like India, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan also have reactors under construction.
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