x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

No easy solution for nuclear waste

As Saudi Arabia embarks on its civilian nuclear plan, concerns have been raised in the country's parliament about its ability to dispose of depleted uranium.

JEDDAH // As Saudi Arabia moves ahead with its civilian nuclear plan, concerns are rising in the Saudi parliament, the Shoura Council, over the ability of the country to dispose of nuclear waste: a recent report showed that up to 600 locations might already be polluted by depleted uranium used by the US military. Members of the kingdom's consultative council argued in a session on Sunday that the kingdom needs to allocate more funds to survey potential waste sites before embarking on its ambitious nuclear plan, which is designed to meet an increasing demand for electrºicity. Demand grows annually by nearly eight per cent, according to the ministry of electricity and water.

Council members, who gathered to discuss Saudi Arabia's preparation to handle nuclear waste in the light of an international treaty it had signed - the International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguard Treaty - have also warned that Iran's nuclear programme is an environmental threat to the kingdom because of the geographical proximity of its Bushehr nuclear plant to Saudi soil. Mazen Balilah and other members of the council cited a special report of the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PME) that said 30 per cent of the 600 possibly US-polluted locations have been deemed polluted and the remainder still need to be surveyed. The US military disposed of nuclear waste in these locations during the Gulf War in 1990, the governmental report says.

Mr Balilah called for allocation of more funds to build a large fence to quarantine the polluted areas and to block off those parts of the kingdom where US forces were present and which still need to be surveyed. According to the PME report, surveying the remaining locations would cost around 2.5 billion riyals (Dh2.45bn) about one per cent of its annual budget. Asaad abu Rizaizah, a Saudi environmentalist and professor of environmental engineering at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, acknowledged that there are parts of the country that were polluted by depleted uranium that have not been discovered yet. But the budget required to survey them is too high.

"Areas where the US military operated need to be identified for the public and isolated as they are hazardous for all living beings, but they still are open." Mr abu Rizaizah said that using nuclear energy to produce electricity would have a reduced effect on the environment if the waste is disposed properly. Saudi Arabia is among the top five countries in the world for the production of carbon dioxide per capita because of its reliance on fossil fuel in its energy plants. The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index for 2007-08 showed that Saudi Arabia produced an average of 13.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, accounting for 1.1 per cent of global emissions even though the country has only 0.4 per cent of the world's population.

The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh is working on plans for Saudi Arabia's first nuclear power plant. However, members of the Shoura Council want the process sped up by establishing an independent body responsible for nuclear energy development in the kingdom. The kingdom's plans are part of a Gulf Co-operation Council initiative to develop a joint civilian nuclear energy programme that would span the GCC.

In May 2008, Saudi officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the US on nuclear energy cooperation, and have also discussed civil nuclear energy cooperation with France. The civil nuclear power co-operation deal the US government signed with Saudi Arabia is similar to the one it has with the UAE. Saudi Arabia has yet to develop a nuclear regulatory body, however. In the UAE, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp, the body responsible for implementing the country's programme, wants to build three nuclear reactors, the first to come on stream by 2017.

Iran's nuclear programme is considered a major security threat to the kingdom, but Saudis are also worried of the environmental effect of the Iranian project. Saudi newspapers recently quoted Zuhair al Harthi, a member of Shoura Council, as saying he is concerned about the ways Iran will dispose of its nuclear waste, especially since the Bushehr plant is only 220km away from the Jubail petrochemical and industrial complex on the kingdom's eastern coast.

Mr al Harthi said Iran is vulnerable to earthquakes, which can result in nuclear waste spillover that could damage Gulf waters and coastal lands. "We are also not sure how Iran will dispose of its nuclear waste as it might dump some of it in the Gulf," he added. Mr abu Rizaizah, however, said Mr al Harthi's worries are not justified because there has been no evidence that Iran would dispose of its nuclear waste improperly.

Various Gulf oil-exporting countries are exploring civilian nuclear power programmes because nuclear power is seen as a long-term solution to high fuel costs and a way to decrease carbon emissions. Kuwait is also planning to develop nuclear power for electricity and desalination. But Qatar has said its interest in nuclear power has waned because of a drop in oil prices and since it signed a memorandum with EDF, France's largest electricity provider, in January 2008.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae