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Arabs push nuke energy despite Fukushima

Nov. 18, 2011 at 1:29 PM   |   Comments

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Most Arab states have shrugged off the political and environmental fallout from the March 11 Fukushima disaster in Japan and are pushing ahead with nuclear energy programs.

Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt have stalled their plans because of heightened safety concerns triggered by the Fukushima meltdown caused by a 9-magnitude earthquake and a 49-foot tsunami.

But they have also been hit by the pro-democracy uprisings that have plunged the Arab world into political turmoil and an uncertain future.

It's not clear when, or even if, they might revive their nuclear plans.

But Arab countries that had already launched their nuclear energy programs, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are pressing ahead.

Eight months after the Fukushima meltdown, "the impact of the crisis on nuclear power plans in the Middle East and North Africa region is becoming clear," the Middle East Economic Digest reported this month.

"Countries that had already begun to develop nuclear power plants have largely stayed on track …

"In contrast, countries that rushed to announce new plans in 2010 have been forced to reassess due to the Fukushima disaster," MEED reported.

Leading the way is Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer which fears that by 2020 its oil output will be entirely consumed domestically to fuel power generation.

Right now, the kingdom is producing more than 8 million barrels per day, two-thirds of its total capacity.

Some economists say that if the current energy consumption growth rate of 7 percent continues, within 20 years the kingdom will burn the equivalent of almost all of its recent daily output.

Others have lower projections which the Saudis consider to be more accurate, although the forecasts remain dire.

In 2010, Khalid al-Falih, CEO of the state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Aramaco, warned that if left unchecked domestic energy consumption would drain 3 million bpd from crude oil available for export by 2028, cutting of the country's economic lifeline.

At present Saudi Arabia's spare production capacity, which accounts for most of the spare capacity by 12-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is vital for countering disruptions to oil supplies around the globe.

Without that capability to keep down oil prices when necessary, the world could be battered by serious oil crises initiated by radical states like Iran and Venezuela.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief and later ambassador to Washington, said in September the kingdom plans to spend more than $100 billion to build 16 nuclear reactors to meet its growing domestic energy needs driven by rapid population growth and economic development.

"After 10 years, we'll have the first two reactors," said Abdul Ghaini bin Melaibari, coordinator of scientific collaboration at King Abdallah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, known as Ka-Care, set up in 2010 to formulate nuclear policy.

"After that, every year we'll establish two, until we have 16 of them by 2030."

On Tuesday, Riyadh signed an accord with South Korea to cooperate in developing nuclear power.

It signed similar pacts with France and Argentina earlier this year and is currently negotiating with the United States, Britain, China and Russia.

Korea Electric Power Corp. won a $20 billion contract in December 2009 to build four nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 5,600 megawatts in the United Arab Emirates, another major oil producer facing swelling domestic energy demands, to be ready in 2017-20.

That would make the emirates the first Arab state, like Saudis Arabia an important U.S ally, with atomic power.

Emirates authorities forecast that national peak electricity demand will rise to more than 40,000MW by 2020. Only 20,000-25,000MW can be generated using domestic reserves of natural gas.

All told, 13 countries across the Middle East have announced plans for nuclear power stations, or revived old plans, since 2006.

Despite the vast hydrocarbon reserves held by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf producers, virtually every Middle Eastern state faces gas shortages as their populations grow, economies expand and energy consumption soars.

Jordan, a desert kingdom with few resources, is also sticking to its plans to establish a nuclear power project.

Its Atomic Energy Commission has taken bids from several companies, most notably Areva of France and Mitsubishi of Japan, to build a nuclear plant.

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