It is known that the Middle East countries have no developed nuclear arsenals. Until recently, some of them were not interested in the nuclear industry, as they are rich in hydrocarbon resources. Others are simply not capable of developing such an expensive industry. The third group is constantly being hampered by the international community, namely the IAEA, which, because of the high level of the terrorist threat in the Middle East, is afraid that supposedly-peaceful nuclear technologies can be used for destructive purposes. Finally, some countries are afraid to engage in the nuclear industry because they are under the impression that accidents like the one at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in 1986 and at the Fukushima-1 NPP in 2011 could recur.
Nevertheless, tempora mutantur. Worldwide, the level of energy consumption is growing, especially in the rapidly developing countries of Asia. These are in need of reliable and rather cheap energy sources, and even in the Middle East, which is itself rich with hydrocarbons, they are speaking more and more about the nuclear industry. Compromises with the international community are being reached step by step.
Thus, at the beginning of 2016, the sanctions that had been imposed on Iran several years earlier because of its nuclear program were lifted. However, the industrial operation of the first Iranian nuclear power plant “Bushehr” began back in 2013; and now, the construction of its second power unit is underway. Egypt is also now making preparations for the construction of its first NPP, having recently resumed its nuclear program despite the long period of political instability between 2011 and 2014.
Active discussion on the possibility of building NPPs is currently taking place in the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. By the way, the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which was launched as far back as 1976, is now successfully operating in Armenia. It should be noted that this creation of Soviet designers survived through the destructive earthquake of 1988 without any significant damages.
Also in the last decade, the following countries have expressed interest in nuclear industry development: Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Qatar, Cyprus, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.
Not all these states have turned out to be ready for NPP construction. For instance, in 2013, Oman announced the abandonment of its nuclear project in the wake of the accident at the Japanese Fukushima-1 plant.
Military operations, the terrorist threat and political instability in the territory of Yemen and Syria have also forced these countries to postpone their nuclear projects to better days.
Nevertheless, the conclusion can be drawn that the Middle East is a very promising region for states wishing to export their nuclear technologies, as these countries do not have a lot of experience in the nuclear sphere, and require the help of foreign partners with developed nuclear industries. The main exporters of peaceful nuclear technologies are China, Russia, the US and France. South Korea is also catching up on their degree of popularity. It is notable that most of the above-mentioned Middle Eastern states have expressed a desire to cooperate with Russia.
It was the specialists of Rosatom Russian State Atomic Corporation who helped Iran in building the Bushehr Plant during the sanctions period and are now building its second unit.
They will also build the first Egyptian nuclear power plant named “El Dabaa”. The corresponding agreement was signed in 2015. In September 2017, the State Council of Egypt approved a Russian-Egyptian contract for the construction of the plant. This is expected to be signed before the end of 2017.
Also, by the end of 2017, there are plans to lay the cornerstone to the foundation of the Turkish nuclear power plant “Akkuyu”, the agreement on the construction of which was signed by Russia and Turkey in 2010.
Armenia is also cooperating with the Russian Federation, which is quite natural, as no one else is better acquainted with Soviet technologies than Russian nuclear scientists. The Armenian Nuclear Power Plant is equipped with two VVER-440-type aseismic pressurized water reactors. As mentioned above, these reactors sustained the terrible Spitak Earthquake of 1988 which caused severe destruction, depriving the Armenian SSR of nearly 40% of its industrial capacities and killed tens of thousands of people. Following this incident, the operations of the plant were suspended. However, in 1995, its second power unit was re-launched. Russia has continued supplying the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant with fuel to help in its operation and maintaining its safety. The IAEA is closely monitoring the state of the plant. Power Unit No. 2 of the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant is presently supplying up to 40% of the electricity consumed by the country.
The Armenian government has big plans for upgrading the plant. First, it decided to carry out works to extend the lifespan of Power Unit No.2. Secondly, plans were made for the dismantling of the idle Power Unit No.1. Thirdly, instead of the first unit, plans exist for the construction of a new power unit equipped with a more modern Russian VVER-1000 reactor. This reactor comes with a special security system that was developed taking into account the experience from the Fukushima-1 accident.
Works on upgrading Power Unit No. 2 may begin in 2018. It is reported that the Russian side intends to finance them, having already granted Armenia a loan of USD 270 million.
The Kingdom of Bahrain has not yet begun implementing its nuclear program. Nevertheless, a memorandum of cooperation on peaceful nuclear development with Russia already exists that was signed back in 2008. The document provides for cooperation in scientific research and personnel training, as well as for the possible expansion of cooperation up to the construction of the NPPs.
Russia signed a similar document with Qatar in 2010.
In 2013, the Russian Federation won the tender for the construction of the first NPP in the Jordan. In the spring of 2015, an intergovernmental Russian-Jordanian agreement on the construction and operation of NPPs was signed, which officially came into force in the spring of 2016. The plant will consist of two units with pressurized water reactors. It is expected that they will be launched in 2024 and 2026. At present, the parties are discussing the remaining issues related to the financing of the project.
Between January and March of 2017, Minister of Energy of the Russian Federation Alexander Novak held a number of meetings with the high-ranking representatives of Kuwait, including Kuwaiti Oil Minister Essam al-Marzouk. When discussing the prospects for Russian-Kuwaiti energy cooperation, much attention was paid to the sphere of the “peaceful atom”.
According to Novak, Kuwait is interested in Russian nuclear technologies, and has plans to construct several NPPs. Russia, in turn, is ready to provide Kuwait with all assistance in this sphere.
The nuclear cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia deserves special attention. The matter is that until recently, the relations between these two countries were rather chilly. In recent years, the reason for this was the civil war in Syria, in which Russia provided support (including military) to the existing Bashar al-Assad government, while the KSA supported the Syrian armed opposition. However, now, the situation has changed. Having abandoned their plans for the removal of the Syrian leader, Saudi Arabia has begun building a strong relationship with Russia as a new significant force in the Middle East.
In October 2017, the King of the KSA Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Besides various political issues, the two leaders discussed economic, energy and scientific and technical interaction, including in the sphere of the “peaceful atom”. Rosatom and the Ministry of Energy of the KSA have drawn up a cooperation program. Saudi Arabia intends to construct several NPPs on its territory, and Russia has become its most prospective partner.
Thus, the conclusion can be drawn that Russia is the main player in the Middle East nuclear market. The majority of the countries of the region that have resolved to develop nuclear power and take positive steps towards it are cooperating with the Russian Federation. At the same time, such powerful and influential states as Iran, Turkey and Egypt are among them. The bare fact that the first NPP built in the Middle East region in the post-Soviet era (the Bushehr NPP in Iran) was built by Russian specialists is certainly symbolic by itself, and may become a harbinger of the reality of the continuation of Russia’s technological influence in the Middle East for many years.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”