Thirsty for power

Stephen Beard Nov 10, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We told you earlier this week about a new report out from the International Energy Agency. The upshot of the whole thing was a call for more nuclear power plants as a way to control greenhouse gases. As oil gets more expensive and awareness of global warming rises, nuclear power’s getting more popular in the States and in Europe. Countries in another area of the world are making noises about civilian nuclear technology too. But Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from London there are some doubts that it’s all about sensible economics.

STEPHEN BEARD: This is the fear that has haunted the West for 60 years — the fear that more and more countries would join The Nuclear Club and develop atomic weapons.

When Britain exploded its first nuclear device in 1952 it was one of only three countries with nuclear weapons. Now there are nine. And there could be more quite soon. Five Arab countries have all approached the International Atomic Energy Agency to talk about nuclear power.

Now this could be a purely economic matter, says nuclear analyst Mark Fitzpatrick:

MARK FITZPATRICK: As other forms of energy become more expensive, nuclear energy might be economically viable. And I think that’s why they are looking to it for the future.

The five countries — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and United Arab Emirates — do need to generate a lot more power to drive desalination plants to produce more fresh water for their growing populations. Nuclear energy could do that job. And the fact that the Middle East as a whole is already rich in energy is immaterial, says George Joffe of Cambridge University.

GEORGE JOFFE: Some of the countries have oil and gas but others don’t. And even those that have got oil and gas see a greater utility in selling oil and gas than in using it for domestic power production. In that context, you may well argue that nuclear power does have an attraction.

But the timing of this sudden rush to nuclear power makes it all look rather suspicious. As Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit points out, it does follow North Korea’s detonation of an atomic weapon and the standoff with Iran.

NEIL PARTRICK: In that environment, in which the U.S. and others don’t really appear to be able to deal with proliferation issues in any practical sense, there is a feeling, I think . . . Why shouldn’t they have this facility for whatever purpose they wish to put it.

Iran is the key, says Mark Fitzpatrick. Many Arab countries feel threatened by the Iranians and their bellicose brand of Islam.

FITZPATRICK: Their concern is that if Iran has a nuclear weapon, that at some point they need to perhaps reconsider their security needs, whether at some point they have to have a nuclear weapons capability themselves.

A nuclear arms race would be worrying wherever it occurred. In the Middle East, it would be frightening, says Robert Lowe of the Chatham House think tank.

ROBERT LOWE: The region is as unstable as it ever has been with the number of enormous problems it faces. So an increase in nuclear technology would be of alarm, I think, to all concerned with the stability of the region.

Optimists say that the Arab countries concerned have all behaved legitimately, approaching the International Atomic Energy Agency to ask about civil nuclear power. But the pessimists point out so did Iran and North Korea when they began their journey towards nuclear weaponry.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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