A 'nuclear renaissance' in the Middle East?

In the span of the eleven months between February 2006 and January 2007, at least 13 countries in the Middle East announced new or revived plans to pursue or explore civilian nuclear energy. This upsurge of interest is remarkable, given both the abundance of traditional energy sources in the region and the low standing to date of nuclear energy there. From Morocco to Iran and from Turkey to Yemen, there is not a single nuclear power plant in operation today. There have been plans for nuclear power from time to time, but only one such project has ever been close to coming to fruition. The exception is the Russian-built power reactor at Bushehr in Iran, which is nearly completed. Iran is also standing up a gas-centrifuge plant at Natanz, designed to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for reactor fuel, but which also would be able to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. At Arak, Iran is building a heavy-water-moderated research reactor which has various civilian uses, but is also ideal for producing plutonium for weapons if the spent fuel is reprocessed. Each of the new nuclear-aspirant states announced its decision in terms of electricity needs, energy diversification and the economic benefits of nuclear power. They spoke as well of the need to conserve oil and gas supplies for export earnings, of the high energy requirements of seawater desalination to address growing water shortages, and of the role of nuclear energy in efforts to retard global warming. Although comparative costs are often misunderstood, the rising price of oil has also made nuclear energy more attractive. In addition, participation in the advanced technology sector of nuclear energy is a status symbol, and is seen as a way of keeping up with the developed world. Competition among the prospective entrants to the nuclear market for the limited number of reactors that can be produced at any one time by supplier companies may also help to account for the sudden surge in regional interest. The resurgence in enthusiasm for nuclear energy in the Middle East is fully consistent with a broader trend that is sometimes said to be leading to a worldwide nuclear renaissance. ‘Renaissance’ may be an exaggeration, given that, in even the highest-end nuclear-energy scenario, global nuclear energy output in 2030 stands at less than double its 2006 level.1 In the Middle East, where there was no nuclear inception to start with, ‘nuclear renaissance’ is indeed the wrong term. But there is no doubting the resurgence of interest

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