Sunday, August 17, 2008

Arab Nuclear renaissance

A nuclear renaissance. When I recently read that term, I was amused, because I never quite associated nuclear technology with a renaissance.
The nuclear industry is now into its sixth decade, and on the global front, US presidential candidate John McCain has called for the construction of 45 nuclear power plants in the US by 2030, as a solution for carbon-free power generation and to reduce America's reliance on oil imports.
France obtains nearly 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear sources. However, in the Arab world, and specifically the Gulf, the proliferation of nuclear technology has just begun.
Six Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Algeria and Morocco have said they would like to have civilian nuclear programmes.
The US has already signed an initial nuclear cooperation agreement with Bahrain. France has signed similar agreements with Libya and Algeria. Syria and Jordan have also taken initiatives in this direction.
We in the UAE have gone farthest in developing feasibility plans, and have signed agreements with France, Britain and the US to work on nuclear programmes. The UAE is said to become the owner of the Arab world's first nuclear reactor.
We have ushered in a nuclear age in the Arab world, and the race is on.
If you're wondering why now, why this sudden rush to develop nuclear technology, the answer is very simple. The huge oil and gas reserves in the GCC states will start to face supply challenges within the next 20 to 25 years, particularly with the increasing domestic and international demands. This makes the aggressive development of alternative sources of energy necessary. Not to mention the ownership of nuclear technology undoubtedly contributes to the balance of power in our region.
Excessive consumption
In our society today, we are consumerists to the core, and our energy consumption is also on the rise, whether for lighting, transport, air conditioning, sewage treatment or desalination. This in itself is a component we need to address, as our excessive consumption of energy, due to our day-to-day behaviour, contributes to the depletion of our current major energy source (oil), and also to the increase of global warming which results from the consumption of oil for energy.
Eventually our excessive consumption of energy will also contribute to the accumulation of nuclear waste, resulting from nuclear power plants which will provide our future energy needs. Can you imagine living in a world with increasing global warming and increasing nuclear waste?
As we usher in this new age of energy, we must tread with caution. Nuclear technology has the power to create sustainable energy beyond the age of oil; it has the potential to create jobs in a new industry in our region, and potentially to promote the mastery of nuclear sciences in the Arab world.
In addition, nuclear energy is more fuel efficient than oil, as one ton of uranium can produce more energy than that produced by several million barrels of oil. Not to mention that oil consumption contributes to pollution and global warming, while a nuclear power plant, that is well managed, does not release pollutants into the environment.
But this technology also has the power to destroy human life. I recall the words of the scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who is known as "the father of the atomic bomb". Upon testing the atom bomb for the first time, Oppenheimer described it as "... death ... destroyer of worlds".
The atomic bomb is a product developed through nuclear technology, so the potential for mass destruction is also what nuclear technology offers, and this is something we should always be conscious of.
Nuclear energy also comes with the challenge of waste disposal, as nuclear power plants produce products which emit dangerous radiation that can kill, and so require special storage.
Also some of you may remember the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. The explosion of that reactor resulted in a severe release of radiation or radioactive dust which was nearly 30 to 40 times more than the radiation released by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So while nuclear technology is a necessary strategy for our region, we must pursue this with much wisdom and regulation.
I believe that in moving forward the fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is what type of world do we want to live in, and that should dictate how we develop and use nuclear technology.
I believe in the decades to come we want to build an Arab region that is powerful because of the enlightened and progressive intellect of its people, its good systems of governance, its solid innovative economies, its capacity for self-defence when necessary with wisdom and restraint, and its wise and humane approach towards the use and development of powerful technologies such as that of nuclear power. That would be a renaissance.

Najla Al Awadhi is a member of the Federal National Council, Deputy CEO Dubai Media Incorporated and General Manager of Dubai One TV.

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