x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ex-nuclear chief urges joint GCC effort

Hans Blix believes a group similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency, but specific to the Middle East, could lead to a region-wide nuclear energy market.

Hans Blix, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says a similar organisation would help the Gulf region. Amy Leang/The National
Hans Blix, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says a similar organisation would help the Gulf region. Amy Leang/The National

Hans Blix, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called for the creation of an organisation for nuclear cooperation.

Mr Blix, who was in charge of the unsuccessful search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the US invasion in 2003, said such a group could ultimately lead to a region-wide nuclear energy market.

Mr Blix, who led the IAEA from 1981 to 1997, conceded that concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation were the immediate priority, alongside a careful look at the safety of civilian nuclear power after the meltdown of reactors in Fukushima, Japan.

In the long term, he believes, nuclear power generation in the region will expand, and the benefits of an organisation modelled on the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) would become apparent.

Euratom's membership mirrors that of the EU, but the organisation is a separate entity. Its stated aim is to establish a nuclear energy market in the union and sell surplus electricity to outside markets.

Mr Blix believes such a model could be applied in the GCC, or even throughout the Middle East.

"The first priority is to seek a zone free of nuclear weapons … That is what the target is at the present time. But there are people arguing, and I agree with that, that you could have a Gulfatom, or, even better, aMiddle Eastatom," he said yesterday at a conference held in Abu Dhabi by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

Member states could share their expertise, create joint training programmes and cooperate on safety issues, said Mr Blix. Another key advantage would be greater cost-efficiency in the disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

"It is ludicrous to build huge installation for waste disposal for a programme with only a few reactors," he said. Cooperation could extend to sharing power plants, as is already the case in Europe, where Croatia and Slovenia share a plant.

Many obstacles remain in the way to increased nuclear capacity in the region. The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where a nuclear plant was struck by a tsunami and went into meltdown, has brought safety concerns to the fore.

"After Fukushima there may be a period for reflection," said Mr Blix.

Economic and ecological considerations may also slow the regional nuclear drive, some experts believe.

"The cost of nuclear electricity is largely predetermined by its construction costs, which have risen significantly in recent years. Other important factors are the cost of capital, the gas price and carbon price, none of which currently favour nuclear," said Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at the UK think tank Chatham House.

Mohamed Ramady, an associate professor at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, pointed to possible environmental harm from nuclear programmes.

"The problem with civil nuclear energy is that it is a water-intensive industry. The exploitation of huge quantities of water from the Gulf might upset its delicate ecosystem and reduce fish stocks. This would be a grave development, given the dependence of the Gulf on imported food," he said. "It is probable that nuclear power will only form a small part of the Gulf's future energy sector."

Currently, only Abu Dhabi has invested in nuclear energy, with a US$20 billion (Dh73.46bn) plant expected to begin producing electricity in 2017 and generating a total of 5,600 megawatts of electricity from four reactors by 2020.

Mr Blix is aware of waning enthusiasm for nuclear power in some parts of the Gulf.

"The Kuwaitis had a plan to move on, but I cannot see that being pursued. In Saudi Arabia, again, I don't see any firm intentions to move on," he said.

Some countries have ambitious nuclear targets, with the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission seeking to satisfy 60 per cent of domestic energy demand from a home-grown nuclear industry.

While acknowledging that nuclear power projects necessitate a big initial investment, and high up-front costs favour rich countries, Mr Blix believes nuclear power is a more economically viable way of diversifying the region's energy mix than renewable energy, which remains heavily subsidised.

"Relative to renewables, nuclear is superior economically," he says. "If renewables were as competitive as they claim to be, there would be many more private enterprises."