05/03/2022, 11.23
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Moscow plays the nuclear card to relaunch alliances in the Middle East

by Dario Salvi

Atomic energy attracts the countries of the region to meet energy needs and reduce the level of pollutants from hydrocarbons. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have already launched projects and are working on new ones. At the center of the game the Russian giant of the sector Rosatom. Doubts remain about the actual safety of the plants and the fear of accidents.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Isolated from the West by the war in Ukraine, Moscow is looking to the East - from China to the Gulf nations, passing through Turkey - to relaunch business and trade. With added value in the form of the "nuclear card", which more and more countries in the area, including the world's leading oil producers, are looking at with growing attention in order to satisfy energy needs on the one hand and, on the other, to achieve the objectives of reducing pollutants. This is also because the Middle East region and North Africa are among those most affected by climate change, with a worrying rise in temperatures that could trigger long-term problems such as drought, famine and drying up of water reserves. 

Beyond oil, a nuclear region?

Still in its infancy, the development of nuclear energy is gaining momentum with at least six countries claiming growing ambitions: Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. The latter three are, among others, at the top of the list of greenhouse gas polluting nations, hence the growing interest in nuclear power, which would also guarantee benefits in the area of employment and skilled labor. Nevertheless, at the moment there are only two - at least officially - active plants: the Bushehr plant in Iran and the Barakah plant in the Emirates. While the nuclear aspirations of the Islamic Republic would also be subordinated - at least according to the accusations of the West - to the development of weapons, Abu Dhabi would be the first in the Gulf region to adopt a peaceful program for the production of nuclear energy.

In Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy research center has been active since 2010 and is responsible for supervising the programme aimed at building two large power stations. It is part of a broader strategy of the Kingdom for renewable energies, within the framework of Vision 2030 wanted by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Mbs). 

The Russian nuclear giant Rosatom looks at all these countries with attention and interest, to make agreements aimed at the construction of new plants in a market in great expansion. During Expo2020 in Dubai, which recently concluded, the head of the entity for the Middle East and North Africa Alexander Voronkov told S&P Global Platts that Riyadh is one of the realities with which Rosatom "is ready to collaborate when tenders are called, from fuel supply to plant construction."

The Emirates has selected it for the supply of enriched uranium and has already started projects with Turkey and Egypt. The project with Cairo involves the construction of four 1,200 MW units in Dabaa, which are scheduled to come on stream by 2028. The preparatory work should be completed by the second half of 2022; in mid-April, a high-level Russian delegation visited the Country of the Pharaohs to verify the progress of the work and set the next targets. Western sanctions on Moscow are not expected to have negative repercussions in the sector and, as Bloomberg itself wrote in March, even the White House has been reluctant to hit Rosatom directly with punitive measures.

The Tsar and the Sultan

Among those who have spent most vigorously in an attempt to reach a peace agreement, or at least to cool the tempers of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with one foot in NATO and one eye on Moscow. A diplomatic effort to be sold in an internal key, to raise the odds of a leadership clouded by tensions and heavy economic problems. And a way to assert itself as a leading player on the international stage. What is certain is that Ankara is not joining the European and American train of sanctions, seeking to preserve trade relations with Moscow (and Kiev) as much as possible. 

In this framework of fragile balance is part of the construction of the first nuclear center in Turkey by Rosatom, with a project of nearly 20 billion euro prerogative of a nation that provides 45% of gas and 17% of oil used annually by the former Ottoman Empire also hungry for energy, with the "sultan" Erdogan trying to maintain a channel of privileged dialogue with the "czar" Vladimir Putin. The commissioning of the first nuclear plant is expected to take place by 2023 at Akkuiu, in the southern province of Mersin, and includes three Vver-1200 pressurized water reactors - under construction - and a fourth at the preliminary design stage. Completion is expected by 2026, providing the country with about 27.5 terawatt hours per year, or about 9 percent of its energy needs. After Akkuiu, realized in 2010 thanks to a direct agreement between Moscow and Ankara, now Turkey seems to want to push the accelerator and proceed with new projects aimed at the construction of other plants. This atomic game, played together with the Saudis, Emirates and Iranians to name but a few - not forgetting Israel, the only nuclear power in the region to date - could give rise to new balances and scenarios that are difficult to trace today. 

Nuclear and climate

Finally, the issue relating to the use of nuclear energy also encompasses the theme of climate change. The data released by the experts of the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that the Gulf nations use 90% of hydrocarbons, among the main contributors to the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. The impact of nuclear power, in this sense, is almost nil and that is why more and more governments are studying its use to achieve the objectives set by Net-Zero, or the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions within the next few decades.

Certainly, nuclear energy is not without its doubts and perplexities, as well as fears relating to possible accidents with heavy repercussions on the health of people and the environment in a situation where there is no lack of conflicts and tensions. One of the examples of compromise is related to desalination activities (process that allows to separate salt from sea water), half of which in the world takes place in the area. And it is precisely the Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait that are the first to exploit the process, obtaining over 90% of the drinking water for their needs. An adverse event would end up causing devastating repercussions on the possibility of access to water, adding to the increase of 1.5 degrees of temperature, double the global average.

Experts say there is a need to carefully evaluate the risks and dangers of an extreme climate that could damage nuclear facilities and cause radiation whose harmful effects would remain for hundreds of years. The European heat waves that shut  or slowed down nuclear reactor operations in France and Germany in 2003 and 2019 are more than a wake-up call. 



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