If petroleum is so abundant, why are oil-producing countries in the Middle East and beyond turning to nuclear energy? The Middle East's biggest oil producers--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iran--are poised for a surge in nuclear energy development over the next two decades. By 2025, at least 15 new reactors are expected to be built in the region, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Aside from Iran, whose geopolitical ambitions are driven by a perverse desire to possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons, Middle East countries plan to use nuclear energy for economic development. For example, the United Arab Emirates has broken ground for the first of four South Korean-built reactors scheduled to begin generating electricity in 2017. Kuwait is expected to announce plans shortly to build four reactors. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are expected to follow suit.
With the largest economy in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia plans to spend $80 billion on energy technologies, and a large share is expected to be invested in nuclear power. One of the reasons for the move toward nuclear is that production of natural gas in the region, which historically has been used as a source for electricity production, is lagging. And burning oil to generate power is inefficient and generates more pollution than nuclear energy. Besides, Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries are preparing for an era when the use of fossil fuels might be constrained by a carbon tax in the United States and other industrialized countries.
The interest in nuclear generation of electricity is spreading not just in the Middle East and among neighboring countries, but globally. There are nearly 450 nuclear plants operating worldwide. In Europe and Japan, the share of nuclear-based electricity is nearly 30 percent. Worldwide, 52 reactors are under construction with a total of 344 more planned. China is in the lead with 24 nuclear plants being built, followed by Russia, South Korea and India. Other countries gearing up to build nuclear reactors are South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and Morocco.
These nuclear plants will pump out power for economic growth without creating smog or loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
The United States already operates the largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the world with 104 reactors producing about 20 percent of our nation's electricity, but there hasn't been a groundbreaking for a new plant since 1973. Although utilities are seeking licenses to build and operate about 30 new reactors, the challenge lies in the financing of new plants. In the current economic climate, it's difficult to obtain private financing.
But nuclear power's revival in the United States is inevitable. It is paved not only by the need for more generating capacity but also by favorable cost comparisons with other fuels, concern about climate change, and improved licensing procedures.
To be sure, we also need to consider all forms of renewable energy as they become cost-effective, but the unavoidable truth is that nuclear plants occupy a small fraction of the land required for solar and wind power. And while nuclear plants produce electricity about 90 percent of the time, wind turbines generate power, on average, only 30 percent of the time and require back-up electricity from fossil fuel turbines on days when the weather isn't cooperating. Solar energy is less efficient, providing electricity only 20 percent of the time.
Nuclear power, therefore, must play a larger role in maintaining our nation's energy security and reducing atmospheric pollution and acid rain. Nuclear power also has economic benefits, as it provides a stimulus for new jobs and revenue.
The Saudis can build nuclear plants. The Turks can build nuclear plants. We can, too. The enormous power at the heart of the atom promises to benefit economies worldwide.
Mark J. Perry is a visiting scholar at AEI.