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A new nuclear age dawns – against all the odds

Despite its bad press, emissions-free nuclear power can bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables

nuclear power Reuters/Kyodo
The International Energy Agency calculates that about 10% of global electricity generation is nuclear powered

Nuclear power, even the peaceful civil type, has had a bad press over the years, but that has to change if the world is to rise to the challenge of climate change.

And it might seem ironic but oil-rich Gulf countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among the enthusiasts about nuclear energy as they diversify their economies.

Chernobyl, Five Mile Island and Fukushima were not exactly case-book studies of an industry in which you would want to place your trust for the future of humanity.

And the not-entirely irrational association with Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also pretty “negative events” in PR terms.

But the eco-technophobes who want to “just stop oil” have jumped on those historical connotations to justify writing off an industry that could, just maybe, help get the world out of the global warming trap into which it has fallen.

The nuclear-powered electricity generation, for example, is 100 percent free of fossil fuels and produces absolutely no carbon emissions. 

If the world’s entire energy infrastructure and transport systems were nuclearised, there would be no more talk of “net zero” – just zero.

Of course, that is an impossible aim given current technology, global regulatory frameworks and financial costs.

But nuclear power can still help bridge the gap between our current hydrocarbon-dependent infrastructure and the new era of renewables, hydrogen and other low-emitting fuels, including abated fossil fuels.

The International Energy Agency, reporting on the “new dawn for nuclear energy”, calculates that about 10 percent of global electricity generation is nuclear powered – but around four times new nuclear capacity needs to be brought online by 2030 if net zero targets are to be reached under the Paris Agreement.

That will cost money, of course. Nuclear investment needs to scale up to about $125 billion per year between now and 2030 if it is to become a serious element in the energy transition, while maintaining existing nuclear facilities. Over the past six years it has run at an average of $40 billion.

The technology is coming along. Not only are the gigantic accident-prone reactors of the past now cheaper, more efficient and – above all – more secure, but a new generation of small to medium reactors (SMRs) can provide power to a specific locality.

Anyone who has lived in the UAE will recognise the air-conditioning plants that provide cooling to an apartment development, office complex or entire mall. SMRs are similar, but for nuclear-powered electricity generation.

Countries in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf see the inescapable logic for them of nuclear if they want to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbon dependency.

They can reduce their own carbon footprint by swapping fossil fuels like oil and gas for nuclear in their domestic energy mix, and also prolong the life of their own revenue-earning exports.

It should satisfy the environmentalists too by keeping those hydrocarbons in the ground for longer.

The UAE was the first to go nuclear in the region (leaving aside the complicated case of Iran), with Korean-built reactors which have been supplying power from their location at Barakah in Abu Dhabi since 2020 and will eventually provide 25 percent of the UAE’s needs.

The contrast between the UAE and Saudi Arabia illustrates some of the ongoing sensitivities that surround the nuclear industry.

Because of international concerns about nuclear proliferation and the risk of nuclear fuels being used for military purposes, the UAE agreed to outsource its uranium supply and enrichment to foreign providers.

The Saudis – coming to it later in the day and with the prospect of decent domestic deposits of uranium – have been keen to develop their own fuel enrichment and processing industry.

They wanted to obtain US approval for this in order to access American nuclear reactor technology, and it was a top item on the visit of President Biden to Riyadh last summer. But a deal fell apart at the last minute.

Now the Saudis have put the whole process out to tender to countries including China, France, Russia and South Korea, in addition to the US.

The politics of the situation are inscrutable, but the word in Riyadh is that they would still rather go with the American offer, if Washington can sell it at home.

Trials such as these illustrate the challenges surrounding even peaceful nuclear development.

But civil nukes can be a vital part of the energy transition, and will be a big feature of the Cop28 summit in the UAE in just a couple of months.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia