When countries start dabbling in nuclear energy, eyebrows raise. It’s understandable. Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons while allowing countries to pursue civilian nuclear programmes has proven a tough and sometimes unsuccessful balancing act for the global community.
So when atom-splitting initiatives surface in a region with a history of nuclear secrecy and where whacking missiles into one’s enemies is relatively common, it is not just eyebrows that are hoisted, but red flags.
Right now, warning banners are waving above the Arabian Peninsula, where the United Arab Emirates has loaded fuel rods into the first of four reactors at Barakah – the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant.
Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia insists its nuclear ambitions extend no further than civilian energy projects. But unlike its neighbour and regional ally, Riyadh has not officially sworn off developing nuclear weapons.
The kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has publicly declared his intention to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran gets them first.
The spectre of the Saudi-Iran Cold War escalating into a nuclear arms race is not beyond the realm of possibility. There are growing concerns over the nuclearisation of the Arabian Peninsula and where it could lead the Gulf and the Middle East – a volatile region that experts warn could be opening itself up to superpower proxy fights on a nuclear scale.
Nuclear energy, the kingdom argues, would allow it to export crude it currently consumes for domestic energy needs, generating more income for state coffers while developing a new high-tech industry to create jobs for its youthful workforce.
But if a bountiful economic harvest is the goal, nuclear energy is a poor industry to seed compared to renewables like solar and wind.
“Every state has the right to determine its energy mix. The problem is this: nuclear costs are enormous,” Paul Dorfman, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Institute, University College London and founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, told Al Jazeera. “Renewables are maybe between one-fifth and one-seventh the cost of nuclear.”
Utility-scale, average unsubsidised lifetime costs for solar photovoltaic were around $40 per megawatt hour (MWh) in 2019, compared to $155 per MWh for nuclear energy, according to an analysis by financial advisory and asset manager Lazard.