Kuwait’s Nuclear Energy Aspirations

By Bilal Y. Saab – Two years ago we learned that Kuwait, the 5th biggest oil producer among OPEC members, was planning to build 4 nuclear power reactors by 2022. They won’t be the first, the UAE already has a civilian nuclear energy program, unique in the Arab world (many call it the model for the region), and Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are thinking carefully about their nuclear options and planning accordingly. I am sure Qatar is in that list of nuclear hopefuls too.

According to a September 09, 2010 Bloomberg story, each proposed plant in Kuwait would carry 1,000 megawatts. Sounds like an awful lot to me for such a small country of roughly 3 million people, unless you want to light up Kuwait city as if it’s 4th of July every day. But I am not a technical expert so I will defer to colleagues at CNS.  The motivation? Primarly energy supply deficiencies in the state of Kuwait. Yes, despite their oil and financial resources, they do have severe power outages in the summer, and for the life of me, I don’t understand how that could be. But again, I am no expert, you can read the Bloomberg story again, it partly explains why. The other motivation is regional and international prestige. They do have the money for it and see no reason why the UAE should have monopoly over this vital energy resource (read this August 2010 story too by the National). For more on the plans and thinking of Kuwait’s National Nuclear Energy Committee (KNNEC), I refer you to this powerpoint presentation, dated December 2010 in Tunis.

But there is a dramatic follow up to this story: Earlier this year, Kuwait made a strategic decision to abandon civilian nuclear power production. I did not see that one coming. If only Tehran can hear it. Well, the Iranians did I  am sure, but chose to ignore it. What accounts for Kuwait’s decision? Japan! That’s right, the nuclear incident at the Daiichi nucler power complex in March of last year, caused by a massive quake.

Kuwait is not exactly a paragon of democracy (they are way better than we all think though) but according to my sources at the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington, the Kuwaiti public did have a say in this and did affect governmental decision-making. Kuwaitis questioned the necessity of building nuclear power plants and their effects on public safety. Also, there were questions of where Kuwait would store the radiocative waste generated by the proposed plants. So what did Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah do partly in response to public questioning and concerns? He dissolved the KNNEC for months!

I think there is more to it here. US pressure? Maybe. But it is quite remarkable that Fukushima did not deter the UAE, their program is up and running still. So I ask this: to what extent do different domestic political conditions explain the Kuwaiti and UAE responses? Worth thinking about. But I’ll keep watching this story, it is entirely possible that Kuwait might rethink its position.

Photo: Constructionweekonline.com