The TimesOnline published an article on November 4, 2006 titled Six Arab states join rush to go nuclear with the following by-line: “Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor”. After reading the article, I realized the significance of the fact that the author of the story was the diplomatic editor.
The six countries mentioned in the article – Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and the UAE – have indicated to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that they are going to initiate or expand programs to develop civilian nuclear power technology. One of the applications that interest them is the use of nuclear power to produce fresh water.
As someone who has been in the area a couple of times, that motivation struck me as immensely logical. Fresh water is certainly a vital commodity; it is in short supply in the countries mentioned; and nuclear power has proven that it can be a source of economic heat energy which is a necessary component in any desalination project.
As a benefit for the interested countries and the world, nuclear heat energy does not produce greenhouse gases or any other air pollutants. It also does not use up supplies of fossil fuels that have far more valuable applications in vehicles and industrial chemicals. In addition, the countries listed generally have growing populations, indicating that their need for fresh water is inevitably going to increase in the future.
Mr. Beeston apparently sees the announcements of nuclear interest through different lenses. Immediately following the reporting of the fact that the countries have talked to the IAEA, he inserts the following commentary:
Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that it was clear that the sudden drive for nuclear expertise was to provide the Arabs with a “security hedge”.
“If Iran was not on the path to a nuclear weapons capability you would probably not see this sudden rush [in the Arab world],” he said.
Mr. Beeston then reveals his own biases with the following statement:
The announcement by the six nations is a stunning (emphasis added) reversal of policy in the Arab world, which had until recently been pressing for a nuclear free Middle East, where only Israel has nuclear weapons.
Finally, he repeats the often expressed diplomatic mantra that a country with significant oil and gas reserves that is interested in nuclear power must secretly be more interested in nuclear weapons. Mr. Beeston applies this “logic” to Saudi Arabia, but the same interpretation has been applied to Iran’s nuclear programs numerous times, and, interestingly enough, was applied to the United States in a long ago era.
As a nuclear technologist, I have a different point of view – obviously. Any country or industrial organization with substantial cash reserves and a desire to prosper in the future should be feverishly investigating atomic energy. That is especially true for countries and companies that are already in the energy business – they know how important their product is for continued prosperity, they know their customers, and they should realize that atomic energy has attributes that makes it BETTER than their current product offerings.
Ignoring that fact makes some energy producers look a bit like stubborn vacuum tube manufacturers after the introduction of the transistor.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that GE was the world’s largest supplier of the basic component of computers in the 1950s, when computers ran on vacuum tubes. However, that highly respected and supposedly forward looking company was essentially pushed out of that dynamic and highly profitable industry after Bell Laboratories introduced the world to transistors, the technical basis for the semiconductor industry.
GE’s current Ecomagination initiative recognizes all of the energy supply challenges facing areas like the Middle East and North Africa, but almost completely ignores the advantages of nuclear power. Under the category of “Energy” on the Ecomagination web site, it is surprising that there is no link at all for the ABWR or the ESBWR.
I applaud the forward looking people in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE that are making the decision now to invest some of their petroleum dollars into knowledge about atomic energy. It is a technology that can assist them in their development, stretch their natural fossil fuel resources, and help to make life better for their people.