Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hot Topic: Nuclear Energy in the GCC

Earlier this month, Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) that deals with cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear power. The MoU could lead to Russia and Oman engaging in joint research projects and even building nuclear reactors together.

The MoU details Russia and Oman’s plan to establish a working group to promote Oman’s plans to develop nuclear power. The countries also plan to draft an intergovernmental agreement for cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy. Both countries have stated that they plan to cooperate in the following areas:

  • • development of nuclear power infrastructure;
  • • fundamental and applied research;
  • • use of radio isotopes;
  • • building and operation of commercial and research nuclear reactors;
  • • nuclear safety and control;
  • • execution of joint projects on prospecting and mining of uranium;
  • • treatment of radioactive waste;
  • • provision of nuclear fuel cycle services; and
  • • training and professional development of administrative and scientific-technical personnel.
Oman has long had plans to diversify its economy and encourage sustainable economic development policies, and the peaceful use of nuclear power fits in with those plans. Cooperation between Oman and Russia on nuclear power can help the Sultanate develop infrastructure, provide employment opportunities and training, and benefit from Russian expertise and technology.

Oman is not the first country in the Middle East to seek nuclear energy development. Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen have all expressed their intention to develop nuclear energy. The UAE has already signed a bilateral agreement with the United States on nuclear cooperation and is also talking with France to cooperate on nuclear energy. In addition, the North African countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia have also expressed interest in nuclear energy.

MENA states have a number of motivations for this interest in nuclear energy, such as powering water desalination plants and air conditioning, diversifying beyond oil, and furthering scientific and economic development. Some countries have even stated that they prefer to sell their oil rather than use it to meet domestic demand, and constructing nuclear reactors would enable them to do that.

Energy demand is growing rapidly in Oman and the GCC, with electricity and desalination demands estimated to increase by about 10 per cent annually by 2015. Recently, a GCC-wide electricity grid was introduced which allows GCC states to share power during peak periods. The GCC electricity grid is designed to address what has been labeled a “power crisis” in the region.

GCC states are looking to nuclear and other alternative energy sources as providing potential solutions to the power crisis. Solar energy is another potential resource, with new projects underway. Earlier this month, Abu Dhabi opened the largest solar power grid in the Middle East and North Africa. Oman is also in the process of developing solar energy projects in response to the growing electricity demand.