Should I be uneasy that six countries have recently expressed a newfound interest in nuclear energy?

The Middle East Economic Digest, which a number of the other news sources like The Times are referencing, quotes IAEA deputy-director general Tomihiro Taniguchi speaking about the energy interests of several Middle Eastern countries:

Some Middle East states, including Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, have shown initial interests to use nuclear power primarily for [water] desalination purposes,” Tomihiro Taniguchi, deputy director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told MEED on 31 October. “This [the interest] is at a tertiary stage and the main driver is the use of a more efficient energy system. We have held preliminary discussions with these governments. We will offer them help under our technical advisory programme to conduct a study for the [proposed] power plants.”

Industry sources say that two more Middle East states – the UAE and Tunisia – have also shown interest in pursuing similar plans. However, interest from these countries is said to be still at a “rather infant” stage.

According to Taniguchi, the Arab governments may opt to build atomic power plants with capacity of 100-300 MW. “This seems to be the intention. We do not know if it will be cost-effective, given that the economies of scale favour the construction of larger capacity,” Taniguchi said. “It takes about six-to-seven years to install new capacity on a fast-track lump-sum turnkey basis.” The lead time to build a nuclear power plant with capacity of 500-1,000 MW, including reactors, is about 10 years.

Egypt has even checking out the options. (Russia, of course, and China too).

In September, both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal Mubarak called for Egypt to renew its pursuit of a nuclear energy program. The Egyptian program was shut down in 1986. (Bob Einhorn has a chapter on Egypt’s nuclear ambitions in The Nuclear Tipping Point).

Last week, Mubarak visited Russia to discuss a wide range of questions, but one of these was of course the purchase of nuclear reactors. Egypt is currently planning to build 4 reactors. The Russians were eager—Boris Alyoshin, head of the Federal Industry Agency, said Rusia would bid for the Egyptian contract and expressed confidence Russia’s chance of winning the tender. At the same set of meetings, the two countries also agreed (article in Russian ) to the construction of a Russian industrial zone in Egypt that will be used for high tech businesses, such as production of airplane and automotive parts.

There is nothing necessarily wrong about pursuing nuclear energy. After all, many countries such as Japan and South Korea operate nuclear reactors purchased from other countries.

Still, it’s not comforting when a host of countries, in an obviously volatile region, seem to simultaneously decide to emphasize nuclear energy just as the US is desperately trying to constrain the Iranian program.

I was about to toss and turn all night in anguish, and then I read that these countries have also been pursuing studies and assistance resquests with the IAEA on nuclear desalination for over a decade.

So maybe we can all sleep soundly after all? And maybe the folks with ideas on fuel supply garantees and international fuel banks should kick it up a notch, just in case?