To Save the Planet, Follow the Gulf’s Lead on Nuclear Power

Jonathan Gornall

Image courtesy of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation

There is a delightful irony in the fact that, even as the sun sets slowly on the era of fossil fuels, two of the countries with oil and gas reserves that have powered the global economy for decades are now at the cutting edge of the nuclear-power renaissance.

The United Arab Emirates is already generating electricity at its Barakah nuclear plant. When all four of its reactors come online, the plant will provide a quarter of the UAE’s power.

Saudi Arabia – blessed not only with the great gift of oil that transformed its fortunes, but also with vast reserves of the uranium required for nucleargeneration – is also planning its first reactor in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Oil and gas will continue to flow from the region for years to come. But what both countries understand – and what those calling for an immediate halt to production and consumption of fossil fuels refuse to acknowledge – is that without the revenues from fossil fuels, the expensive transition to renewable energy simply cannot be accomplished.

“Renaissance” might seem an odd term for a technology that lit its first lightbulbs almost 70 years ago. But over the years of fossil-fuel plenty, nuclear power has had plenty of bad press.

Partly this is because the technology has been tainted by association with the atomic bombing of Japan at the end of World War II, which is about as logical as refusing to drink water because people have been known to drown in it.

Others point to the potential for disaster. The latest example of such anti-nuclear propaganda is the book “Atoms and Ashes,” by Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy.

Plokhy romps gleefully through the well-thumbed catalogue of nuclear accidents – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are the headliners. But, as one science commentator has pointed out, these examples “do not adequately support his ultimate conclusion that nuclear energy isn’t a safe choice for powering our future.”

Mistakes were undoubtedly made, and corners surely cut in the early years of reactor design. But lessons have been learned and modern reactors are extremely safe. The thorny issue of spent fuel disposal is also being solved.

More to the point, despite the widespread science-fiction hysteria about nuclear energy, there have been only two major accidents – Three Mile Island was a partial reactor meltdown with no casualties – the consequences of which were far less severe than many have been led to believe.

To date, 46 deaths have been directly attributed to the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, although the overall number of fatalities linked to the accident is widely disputed along with the scale of the health impact from the radiation. Either way, the accident was the result of a flawed Soviet-era reactor being operated by badly-trained personnel.

The plant at Fukushima was damaged in 2011 by a tsunami, triggered by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. No one died.

Compare these nuclear disasters with the toll of fossil fuels – for a start, the estimated 8.7 million people who die each year because of related air pollution, to say nothing of the countless lives that have been lost to coal mining.

No form of mass energy production is without risk. In 1975, the collapse of the Banqiao hydroelectric dam in China killed more than 170,000 people. But did the world abandon hydroelectric power? No.

Yet, after Fukushima, nations that really should have known better were panicked into abandoning nuclear power for purely political reasons. Germany, faced with nationwide anti-nuclear protests and pressure from the green vote, pulled the plug on nuclear generation virtually overnight.

Until 2011, 25 percent of the country’s energy came from 17 nuclear reactors. Today, the three that remain operational are marked for shutdown by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Germany is reopening shuttered coal-powered plants.

The reality is that nuclear power is the ultimate clean, reliable energy source. Wind, solar, and hydropower are great, but when the wind doesn’t blow, the sun doesn’t shine, and water doesn’t flow, there are only two options – fossil fuels or nuclear.

This is recognized and embraced by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, countries where major decisions can be taken and acted upon swiftly, and whose leadership in the nuclear field bodes well for all our futures.

In working with the IAEA, the two Gulf states are showing what can be achieved in a remarkably short time and encouraging the global nuclear industry to develop ever more compact and affordable nuclear reactors. This in turn is paving the way for other nations, further down the development ladder, to followsuit.

Whenever world leaders gather for climate-change conferences, much of the debate centers sanctimoniously on the need for developing countries to curb their appetites for fossil fuels. Coming from European nations such as the United Kingdom, which launched the fossil fuel era and powered the growth of their economies with coal and oil, this is laughably hypocritical.

The West should stand up to the perversely disruptive green lobby, embrace nuclear energy as the planet-saving technology it is and, instead of suggesting that developing countries kick the fossil habit and hamper their economic growth, support them with the funding and know-how they need to embrace nuclear power.

Without it, the world could well be doomed. In 2005, 66.5 percent of global electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels. In 2019, it was 63 percent. In 14 years, we have made almost no progress.

The solution, as the UAE and Saudi Arabia recognize, is nuclear power. It’s time for the world to grow up, ditch the irrational attitude toward nuclear energy, and follow their leadership.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.