Jane VaynmanNuclear Power for Everyone!

Should I be uneasy that six countries have recently expressed a newfound interest in nuclear energy?

The Middle East Economic Digest, which a number of the other news sources like The Times are referencing, quotes IAEA deputy-director general Tomihiro Taniguchi speaking about the energy interests of several Middle Eastern countries:

Some Middle East states, including Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, have shown initial interests to use nuclear power primarily for [water] desalination purposes,” Tomihiro Taniguchi, deputy director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told MEED on 31 October. “This [the interest] is at a tertiary stage and the main driver is the use of a more efficient energy system. We have held preliminary discussions with these governments. We will offer them help under our technical advisory programme to conduct a study for the [proposed] power plants.”

Industry sources say that two more Middle East states – the UAE and Tunisia – have also shown interest in pursuing similar plans. However, interest from these countries is said to be still at a “rather infant” stage.

According to Taniguchi, the Arab governments may opt to build atomic power plants with capacity of 100-300 MW. “This seems to be the intention. We do not know if it will be cost-effective, given that the economies of scale favour the construction of larger capacity,” Taniguchi said. “It takes about six-to-seven years to install new capacity on a fast-track lump-sum turnkey basis.” The lead time to build a nuclear power plant with capacity of 500-1,000 MW, including reactors, is about 10 years.

Egypt has even checking out the options. (Russia, of course, and China too).

In September, both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal Mubarak called for Egypt to renew its pursuit of a nuclear energy program. The Egyptian program was shut down in 1986. (Bob Einhorn has a chapter on Egypt’s nuclear ambitions in The Nuclear Tipping Point).

Last week, Mubarak visited Russia to discuss a wide range of questions, but one of these was of course the purchase of nuclear reactors. Egypt is currently planning to build 4 reactors. The Russians were eager—Boris Alyoshin, head of the Federal Industry Agency, said Rusia would bid for the Egyptian contract and expressed confidence Russia’s chance of winning the tender. At the same set of meetings, the two countries also agreed (article in Russian ) to the construction of a Russian industrial zone in Egypt that will be used for high tech businesses, such as production of airplane and automotive parts.

There is nothing necessarily wrong about pursuing nuclear energy. After all, many countries such as Japan and South Korea operate nuclear reactors purchased from other countries.

Still, it’s not comforting when a host of countries, in an obviously volatile region, seem to simultaneously decide to emphasize nuclear energy just as the US is desperately trying to constrain the Iranian program.

I was about to toss and turn all night in anguish, and then I read that these countries have also been pursuing studies and assistance resquests with the IAEA on nuclear desalination for over a decade.

So maybe we can all sleep soundly after all? And maybe the folks with ideas on fuel supply garantees and international fuel banks should kick it up a notch, just in case?


  1. hass (History)

    Develping nuclear power is inevitable because it is the energy source of the future. The burden of weaning off of oil will be heaviest on developing states. Even Sec. Rice acknowledged that developing states will have to turn to nuclear power. However the idea of creating international uranium banks may actually be driving this rush to develop nuclear energy as more states seek to be included in the “enrichment-have” club:

    “Although 187 countries have signed the treaty, some developing nations are skeptical of the intentions of the five original nuclear states and are reluctant to give up the option of enriching uranium, leaving the door cracked to nuclear weapons capability…Developing nations say they don’t want to give up their rights to uranium enrichment and don’t trust the United States or other nuclear countries to be consistent suppliers of the nuclear material they would need to run their power plants.”(LA Times Oct 15)

    And frankly, they have every right to be suspicious and defensive, considering how the nuclear-have states totally violate their own NPT obligations and are continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

  2. Haninah

    Could anyone explain what exactly the “tertiary stage” of interest is?

  3. Rod Adams (History)

    I agree with Hass. Nuclear fission power is the energy of the future, and the future is already here.

    Unlike most other fossil fuel alternatives, fission is more reliable and potentially more cost effective than the fossil fuel that it can replace. Most importantly, it has also proven that it is clean enough to operate inside sealed submarines.

    I expect that many countries will be interested in purchasing complete reactor plant systems and may eventually desire their own fuel processing facilities. This desire can be forestalled by a simple expediency – the current suppliers should make it clear that they are reliable, will compete fairly for contracts, and will not try to impose their political will on other sovereign nations.

    Unfortunately, the prospects for that ideal world are not too terribly high.

    Look also for lots of controversy. The fossil fuel industry will be very protective of its current markets and will continue to enlist the aid of everyone that can help delay the inevitable rush to build new nuclear power facilities.

  4. mark F

    nuclear energy is not clean, the by product is the most carcinogenic substance. There is no way to safely store the byproduct of a nuclear reactor.

    How quickly do “good guys” become “bad guys”

    Where is the threat from a wind turbine, a solar panel, a tidal generator, a ground source heat pump? How many square miles of middle eastern wasteland would be needed to supply all the power needs of the entire region.

  5. Andy (History)

    There is no “single” or ideal energy source for the future. Nuclear energy may have its place, but still has significant downsides, even with today’s technology. First, it’s still expensive – not only with high start-up costs, but also to produce. Additionally, there are added costs (often born by government and therefore not included on balance sheets) like security and monitoring of plants and the fuel not to mention the long term waste disposal costs. Perhaps economies of scale will reduce those costs, but that remains to be seen.

    Another significant hurdle is that nuclear energy can’t fuel automobiles and isn’t as easily transported long distances like petroleum is. Until nuclear power can economically produce liquid fuels (probably hydrogen) or electric cars become sufficiently advanced and ubiquitous, then nuclear power misses the highest-growth energy game in town. Just look at China, which has robust plans for electricity from nuclear power but will still need tremendous amount of oil for transportation.

  6. Randal Leavitt (History)

    Nuclear fission using either uranium or thorium fuel is inexpensive, clean, reliable, and safe. It produces heat. We can convert that heat into electricity which can greatly increase the quality of life for those able to receive this electricity. The delivered energy can move trains, desalinate water, light schools, and deliver entertainment. People living in this luxury are less inclined to be involved in violent military escapades. I cannot imagine a better way to reduce the desperation that causes war than to give people quality improving energy. Nuclear power can do that. It just seems to be starkly obvious to me that we should encourage it.

  7. Rod Adams (History)

    Mark F.Where did you get your information?

    Humans live in a world that has always been radioactive. It is a technically simple matter to measure that radiation and to compare the levels that emanate from shielded containers of used nuclear materials. We ensure that people are not exposed to levels of radiation that even approach natural background for any significant period of time, thus controlling doses to a level that has been proven to be safe through exhaustive, decades long studies.

    I have been searching without success for years for any documented case of a person being injured, much less killed, by accidental exposure to used nuclear fuel materials. (I, of course, realize that there was one significant reactor explosion/fire that killed people, but that event was not an accidental exposure to waste.)

    Andy – utilities in the US are required to report a large amount of hard financial data. The US Energy Information Agency compiles that information and produces statistics on the average costs of producing electricity from a wide variety of fuel sources. The facts that result from this exercise indicate a different reality from your statement. Here are the production cost figures in cents per kilowatt hour from 2005.Nuclear – 1.72Coal – 2.21Gas – 7.51Oil – 8.09You can find the EIA on the web and look through their tables; it is an informative exercise and one that I highly recommend for anyone that wants to be an energy wonk.

    I roger your statement about nuclear not being about to fuel automobiles, but it is rather absurd to say that it cannot be transported long distances. Nuclear plant fuel elements are extremely energy dense. It only takes a couple of trucks to carry enough fuel to operate a 1000 MWe nuclear plant for 18-24 months. If you use oil, gas or coal to fuel the same size plant, you will need to receive enormous quantities of fuel – 11,000 TONS per day in the case of coal – which require massive transportation resources – about 110 train car loads (100 tons each is pretty standard) per day in the case of coal.

    I used to travel all over the Atlantic on a ship with a nuclear power plant – it was fueled in the early 1980s and operated for about 14 years without needing any more fuel. That load weighed less than a couple of sailors.

  8. Andy (History)


    I agree that nuclear fuel itself is easily transported – I was talking about the electricity once it’s produced. My main point was that petroleum energy is, to borrow a term from finance, more “liquid” and is overall a more flexible source of energy than nuclear. That’s a big advantage considering the infrastructure and grid limitations in the USA and many countries.

    As for the comparative price of nuclear energy, I will quibble with your figures which are, actually, the production cost of the power and do not include capital costs. If you look at the latest Annual Energy Outlook report (http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/pdf/trend_3.pdf) and particularly the electricity costs comparison figures (http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/figure_69.html) you’ll see that capital and fixed costs make up a significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear energy. If you leave those costs out, which nuclear partisans often do when citing figures, then nuclear does look very cheap because the fuel costs so much less than other sources. As the report states, when lower capital costs are assumed, then nuclear becomes more competitive. It should come as no surprise that industry is pushing the lower capital cost figures.

    In fact, before 9/11, the nuclear industry was advocating for some advanced reactor designs that greatly reduced capital costs. These reactors did not need the expensive containment and redundant cooling systems since they could not physically melt down. However, 9/11 splashed some cold water on those plans and critics pointed (somewhat unfairly) to the vulnerability of a reactor core without a hardened containment structure to a 9/11 style attack.

    For the foreseeable future, though, coal will probably be cheapest in the USA since we have a large domestic supply. For countries without access to cheap and abundant supplies of fossil fuels, nuclear is obviously much more competitive. That’s one reason why it’s strange to me and many others that middle-east nations with access to cheap fossil fuels are so gung-ho on nuclear energy. I know Hass will have a retort to that statement soon.

    Of course, more than simple cost per kilowatthour must be taken into account. Even though it may not appear so from my comments that I’m anti-nuclear, that’s not the case at all. I would like to see more nuclear energy in the US and a rebirth of the nuclear industry, but the economics must be there. If nuclear remains more expensive then people will have to accept higher prices in lieu of nuclear energy’s other benefits benefits over fossil fuels.

  9. Rod Adams (History)


    It is true that capital costs can change the equation, but it is also true that capital costs for any relatively complex system can vary tremendously from one installation to another.

    That variation, however, is not random – many of the components are controllable. Project management, system design, proper preparation of the environment and a host of other factors all come into play.

    I have been associated with nuclear trained people for the past 25 years. One thing that you can say about them in general is that they are very smart people that work very hard to learn from their mistakes. I am pretty confident that many of the mistakes made during the last nuclear construction boom in the US will not be repeated.

    I also have some very detailed and close personal experience with some of the advanced designs that you mention. (I am the founder and current president of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., so I do have a bias.) We like the passive safety aspects of the pebble bed reactor, but we have always included a containment structure as part of our design. We are pretty confident that our system would be an unattractive and difficult target for anyone.

    Going to our competitors – though coal is abundant, there are serious limitations on the rate at which it can be extracted and transported. Because of the balance between supply and demand, the price has increased rather strongly in the past five years. In addition, when you compare the capital cost of a coal plant that meets current emissions standards to the capital cost of a nuclear plant, there is less than a 20% difference. However, if you add any provisions for “clean coal” or carbon sequestration, you will find that the capital costs are actually HIGHER than those of well managed nuclear projects. There is also far more uncertainty in coal capital costs since no one has actually invented a “clean coal” plant.

    Finally, there is a good reason why countries with petroleum resources are interested in nuclear power – it is far better to use nuclear power for domestic electricity and use their oil for transportation and export. Those uses are much higher value items.

  10. Rod Adams (History)


    One more comment about cost figures from the Annual Energy Outlook. I have been following EIA information for many years. My experience has been that their historical data is dependable. Their future projections have often been wildly inaccurate.

    For example, in the early 1970s, you will find that the official prediction was that nuclear plants would provide about 70-80% of the country’s electrical power by the year 2000.

    In the 1990s, the official predictions for natural gas started at about $2.00 per MMBTU and increased for the next 30-40 years at an annual rate of between 1 and 3%.

    Obviously, both of those predictions of future behavior were not quite in line with reality. I do not really hold that against the individuals at the agency; they are good, hard working data analysts. They are not particularly good fortune tellers.

  11. Andy (History)


    I agree there are many factors that come into play from both an economic perspective as well as environmental, political etc., and they all must be factored in.

    From a purely economic point of view, though, I think the two principle variables that determine the cost-effectiveness of nuclear vs. fossil are fuel prices (for fossil) and capital costs (for nuclear). Unfortunately, those variables are difficult, at best, to pin down. If fuel prices drop over the next 10-20 years and nuclear capital costs are underestimated (which is not a far-fetched prediction), then energy companies who make those high capital investments in nuclear will be sitting on a financial landmine and may not recoup their initial investments, much less make a profit, for decades. Investors see that as a significant amount of risk which is what, IMO, is really holding nuclear back at this point – fear of fuel price drops especially. Since so much of the cost of nuclear is front-loaded, profitability is pushed further into the future and is more subject to changes in key variables like competing fuel prices. That financial reality makes nuclear an inherently more risky investment in the USA which is probably why most nuclear programs around the world receive such a large amount of state support. I think something similar will be necessary to defray some of the risk from high capital costs, perhaps in the form of loan guarantees or even direct subsidies, until economies of scale take over and make nuclear a more clearly profitable enterprise.

  12. Rod Adams (History)


    You are correct. IF fuel prices drop over the next 10-20 years, people that invest in high capital cost nuclear plants will have a more difficult time recovering their investment.

    If, on the other hand, fossil fuel prices go up, companies that have invested in nuclear plants with their predictable, relatively low fuel costs will make out like bandits. That is especially true when compared to those that need to buy large quantities of fossil fuels in order to operate their plants.

    Of course, if the power supplier is a regulated monopoly with a compliant PUC that allows frequent fuel cost adjustments, investing in fossil plants is less risky from a financial point of view.

    All of the above, of course, ignores any risk that air pollution laws will be made more stringent. If fact, it even ignores the risk that the laws and agreements currently on the books will be uniformly enforced.

    I guess one has to pick their risks and make decisions based on the best information available.

    I am still betting significant dollars on nuclear power to be a major success.

  13. Ak Malten, Global Anti-Nuclear Alliance (History)

    Dear jane,

    you wrote:”….Still, it’s not comforting when a host of countries, in an obviously volatile region, seem to simultaneously decide to emphasize nuclear energy just as the US is desperately trying to constrain the Iranian program.

    I was about to toss and turn all night in anguish, and then I read that these countries have also been pursuing studies and assistance resquests with the IAEA on nuclear desalination for over a decade.

    So maybe we can all sleep soundly after all? And maybe the folks with ideas on fuel supply garantees and international fuel banks should kick it up a notch, just in case?”….

    I hope maybe in our future – if we have one – we can soundly sleep in a world without Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy deployment and use, but for now let us remember and not forget the results of the “Atoms for Peace” programs, after 1953, did not only bring the world the promotion of Nuclear Energy by the IAEA, but also the policy of proliferation!You might want to check:




    Peace, orsaved bythe pigeon,

    Ak Malten, Global Anti-Nuclear Alliance