By Taylor Luck

AMMAN – Although a majority of Arab countries have announced their intentions to establish nuclear programmes, a number of challenges face the utilisation of the energy source in the region, experts said on Monday.

A major obstacle to nuclear energy development in the region is a lack of international support due to misconceptions that Arab countries are oil-rich and energy abundant, while many are in fact energy-poor, experts said at the opening of the Middle East Nuclear Summit yesterday.

Highlighting the disparity in fossil fuel resources among Arab countries, Jordan Atomic Energy Commission Vice Chairman Kamal Araj pointed out that there are over 33 tonnes of oil per capita in Qatar, compared to 1 tonne per capita in Jordan.

The Arab world has turned to nuclear energy as the only secure and stable energy source to maintain electricity prices in order to spur development, energy experts said.

“Without a nuclear power plant we will not survive, let alone prosper,” former Yemeni minister of energy Mustafa Barhan said.

Following calls from the Arab League in 2006 to establish a regional nuclear reactor project, several countries announced their intentions to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes in 2007.

With the Kingdom, the UAE and Egypt on pace to produce nuclear energy within the next decade, and several Arab states not far behind, several issues are hindering the technology’s successful application in the region, panellists said in a session on integrating nuclear energy in the Middle East.

Financing remains one of the biggest issues facing Arab countries looking to establish nuclear energy programmes, officials said, highlighting the extensive risks involved in establishing nuclear power plants, as well as production costs amounting to a significant proportion of the gross domestic product of many Arab states.

Options include public-private partnership (PPP), completely government-owned and operated, and purely private sector models, each of which has its own drawbacks, particularly the large financial risks involved in producing a nuclear power plant on time.

While energy officials in the Kingdom have said they intend to use a PPP model, Barhan suggested that Arab states adopt purely private sector operations, noting that this model provides expertise and creates jobs at the local level without the need for Arab governments to put forward large amounts of funds in initial investment.

Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA) Director General Abdulmajid Mahjoub said electricity grids across the region need to be upgraded, noting that many national grids do not have the capacity to link up to nuclear reactors, while regional grids have yet to handle large capacities – preventing Arab countries from exporting electricity to their neighbours.

Mahjoub told The Jordan Times that without proper electricity grid stability, electricity is lost, adding that national and regional electricity grids should be prepared two years before nuclear power plants go on-line.

In addition to financial and infrastructure hurdles, Arab countries lack the skilled human resources needed to sustain nuclear programmes, experts said.

In order to put their planned nuclear power plant online by 2017, the UAE has imported a vast majority of personnel, including its regulatory body, which consists entirely of foreigners, Barhan pointed out.

“Is this approach sustainable? This is an issue that has to be addressed,” he said.

Addressing the conference, UK Atomic Energy Agency Chairwoman Lady Barbara Judge highlighted that many nuclear engineers worldwide left to work in other fields as the demand for nuclear energy dropped in the 1980s and 1990s.

The AAEA does not have accurate data on nuclear engineers in the Arab world, Mahjoub said, noting that many of the workers who were trained have either left the region or switched sectors to work as civil and electrical engineers.

Jordan’s bachelor’s programme in nuclear engineering at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, with the first class graduating in 2011, is the only one of its kind in the region outside of Egypt, Araj pointed out, adding that with the planned nuclear research reactor, Jordan could serve as a regional training centre.

One potential solution for personnel, according to Mahjoub, is providing training to existing civil engineers and technicians in order to build an experienced Arab workforce.

“If provided training, they can serve the sector until new graduates are attracted into the field,” he told The Jordan Times.

Many Arab countries have limited options for nuclear reactor sites, as they are restricted geographically, particularly for water-intensive technology.

Meanwhile, with over 300 power plants in development worldwide and several Arab states pursuing nuclear energy at the same time, they face a limited number of international vendors and contractors specialising in the technology, Barhan said.

“There is going to be a peak in demand in the region in a few years, and that is where the tough questions are going to have to be addressed,” he said.

“Even if we all want nuclear programmes and we all had the money, who is going to build it?”