By Dr. Paul Dorfman, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the UCL Energy Institute, University College London
The Middle East and Gulf region faces unique challenges and perceived opportunities when it comes to nuclear power. The tense geopolitical environment makes nuclear power an even more controversial issue here than elsewhere as competing states share the unease that neighbors may use civilian nuclear programs for military ends. It is not that nuclear military interests are sole drivers of support for civil nuclear power, but the fact is dual-use technology comprises a significant complementary factor.
This dynamic plays out via a range of safety and security concerns. Unless enrichment of uranium and reprocessing technologies are effectively regulated against diversion of civil materials for military purposes, the reality is that new nuclear power plants can and will provide the cover to develop and make nuclear weapons. Whether that capability is turned into actual weapons largely depends on political inclination. For example, in response to developments in Iran, Saudi Arabia has made it clear on more than one occasion that there is another reason for their interest in nuclear energy – the relationship between civil and nuclear weapon programs.
In order to function at any level, nuclear power needs stability and cooperation between neighboring states. However, as recent military strikes infer, the region is one of the world’s most volatile. Nuclear safety revolves around the broader issue of security, especially since some armed groups may view state-sponsored military operations as a reason to target nuclear installations or intercept enriched uranium fuel or waste transfers.
Such a backdraft from foreign policy, and politics more generally, will increasingly dovetail with regional nuclear safety considerations. This is important because, given the associated high human activity-related hazards, there are broader concerns – since a major nuclear accident or incident would have significant transboundary consequences.
An attack on a nuclear installation may be one of several types. There are two main targets in a nuclear power plant: the reactor itself and the ponds storing the highly radioactive spent fuel removed from the reactor. An attack on the reactor could cause the core to go critical or result in a loss of the coolant that removes heat from it. And the protection of nuclear plants with fighter aircraft or surface-to-air missiles is not an easy task, with time available to scramble fighter aircraft or fire surface-to-air missiles proving limited. So, there are now heightened concerns about the need to try to secure high-risk radioactive material from concerted attack, sabotage, or hijack to a transporter of nuclear material.
There are a number of distinct radiological hazards at a nuclear power station, including fission products and the activated inventory of the reactor fuel and core, the irradiated fuel store, and radioactive wastes. Operational hazards also include irradiated spent fuel transportation and new fuel delivery.
Consequently, the risk to people and the environment as a result of a major accident or incident is very significant. However, because events can be triggered by processes that a nuclear reactor is not designed to withstand, fault conditions can cascade – and with its failure to recognize the cascade of unexpected ‘beyond design-base’ risk, the regulation of nuclear infrastructure has proven limited.
This is because, due to the complexity and the physical conditions during reactor operation, understanding of reactor design and operation can only be partial. Thus, since levels of reliability required for a complex interactive and tightly coupled nuclear power plant are very great, sets of combined impacts at a nuclear installation have the capacity to trigger serious environmental, human health, economic, and political consequences.
Shifting power relations, regional and international rivalries have led to instability, security threats, and patterns of violence in the Middle East and Gulf region. Interactions between soft and military power have played a crucial role in shaping political and security landscapes.
If conflict, weapons proliferation, and instability continue to increase – under more hostile circumstances, lethal anti-access systems will include evermore sophisticated longer-range capabilities including ballistic missiles; loiter-capable automated systems; anti-ship ballistic missiles; super-cavitating torpedoes; advanced submarines; and weapons of mass effect. For more advanced actors, offensive space or ground-based anti-satellite systems may disrupt space assets. Offensive and defensive cyber capability may impact via disruption of networks and systems.
Meanwhile, Middle East and Gulf state and non-state actors are acquiring capabilities that previously belonged only to larger states. Advances in specific technologies and manufacturing are broadening access to long-range precision-strike capabilities. Through arms sales, new technology-sharing relationships are created and existing ones reinforced. The current rapid pace of technological evolution means that non-aligned states, non-state actors, and even second-tier defense companies are pursuing and contributing to drone and cruise-missile capabilities.
As cooperative security takes a back seat to poorly defined competition, further civil and military nuclear expansion may evolve – not a happy vision for the safety and security of the region.
But another pathway is both feasible and possible. Given the entropic risks involved, why commit to further nuclear expansion in a region so often impaired by overt or covert conflict? The case for civil nuclear power in the region has never been strong, and because their state electricity systems are relatively small, significant nuclear electricity grid input risks overload anyway.
Worldwide and in the Middle East and Gulf region, the fate of new nuclear is inextricably linked to, and determined by, renewable energy technology roll-out. Currently, global market trends for new nuclear are declining. Whilst ramping improvement in renewable technology is one explanation for this dynamic, the main driver seems to be the plummeting costs of renewable energy and the ramping costs of new nuclear construction.
There seem to be no resounding new revelations over the vulnerability of nuclear power to unforeseen natural disasters or through human or engineering-based fault conditions, including accidental or deliberate harm. Accidents are, by nature, accidental, and the cost of ignoring this common-sense axiom can prove radiologically catastrophic. Whatever one’s view of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy in the Middle East and Gulf region and further afield, it seems clear that the possibility of military attack and catastrophic accident must be factored in – and all that implies for complex defense and energy policy decisions.