Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Between Nuclear Power and Hydrogen

The quest to meet national commitments to reduce carbon emissions, and the instability facing energy markets, have brought the option of nuclear energy back in circulation, as it is carbon-free and can produce uninterrupted electricity. But most environmental groups are opposed to nuclear plants, because of the excessive danger to nature and humans caused by potential accidents, and the obstacles hindering safe disposal of the radioactive waste.

Some extreme devotees of nuclear energy promote it as a cure-all for energy and climate problems, while downplaying its potential risks. On the other hand, some embellished environmentalists categorically reject it, while exaggerating its risks and minimizing the limitations of other alternatives, calling instead for total dependence on renewable energy. In fact, the standpoint of both parties is characterized by ideological stiffness. I recall that when the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) included nuclear energy as one of the potential components of the energy mix, in its report on Sustainable Energy in 2013, many considered this a betrayal of the environmental cause. It was not easy to convince them that addressing complex environmental and climate challenges requires taking all possible alternatives into account, based on scientific and economic grounds, without exclusions.

There is complete agreement that a significant and rapid reduction in carbon emissions must be achieved before 2050, on the way to zero emissions target. This is what science has recognized as a prerequisite for stopping the rise in temperature at a limit that does not cause a complete collapse of life on earth. The goal can only be achieved through well-known measures, each carrying benefits and limitations. Since burning fossil fuels is the main source of carbon emissions, producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are working on developing carbon technologies that eliminate emissions without abandoning oil.

Reducing emissions begins with enhancing energy efficiency and putting an end to waste, either directly in electricity, transportation and factories, or by rationalizing consumption patterns in general, because the manufacture of all products requires energy. The second track to reducing emissions is to expand the use of renewable and clean sources of energy, such as sun and wind. Some Arab countries, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco and Jordan, are implementing major renewable energy programs. The third track is to deal with carbon, which is released from power plants and factories running on fossil fuels, by capturing and storing it safely. Saudi Arabia is currently leading a Circular Carbon Economy initiative, which is based on collecting carbon dioxide emissions to be reused in new products. Until this technology reaches the stage of industrial applications at reasonable costs, other reliable and tried methods to reduce emissions, which are still cheaper, should be pursued. It is certain that the success of "circular carbon" applications is very crucial, not only for oil-producing countries, but also for the global stability of energy supplies.

Before the energy supply disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine, the question was: If all other measures fall short of decreasing carbon emissions on time to the required level, can nuclear energy provide a quick fix, even if only temporarily? This option gained traction for fear of the repercussions on stable energy supply caused by unforeseen events, such as the war in Ukraine. Nuclear reactors technology has witnessed rapid development in recent years, which made them safer and more efficient. Also, the average period for building a nuclear power plant to produce electricity has been reduced to five years. However, the nuclear energy option encompasses specific constraints, ranging from economic factors to safety standards, in addition to the availability of the necessary scientific and human capabilities. The high initial cost requires immense financing, either from internal or external sources, which can only be available to a few countries. Additionally, nuclear reactors require scientific resources and technical crews qualified to operate and monitor, as well as contingency plans to deal with potential accidents. Planning also involves a solid plan for the disposal of the resulting radioactive nuclear waste, which should necessarily exceed the operating life of the nuclear reactor, which is estimated to be between 20-25 years.

It is only natural for Arab countries that can avail themselves of nuclear energy to take the option into consideration, as part of their energy mix, as well as reaping the benefits of advanced technology, mitigating emissions and diversifying energy sources. In this regard, I recall a conversation I had, ten years ago, with a minister from an Arab oil-producing country that was among the first to opt for nuclear energy in the region. I asked him "Why does a country which is among the world's major oil producers need the nuclear option, which might be a competitor to its oil resources?" He stunned me with his visionary answer: "We seek to develop our scientific and technological capabilities, and commit to climate action, while remaining leaders in the energy market. Nuclear technology helps us achieve this, as oil is bound to deplete, and the measures to reduce carbon emissions may force a premature halt to extraction, if practical and economical carbon capture techniques are not developed in due course."

The nuclear energy option is still valid today for the countries that can obtain it, provided that the requirements of financing, science, training and safety are met, from operation to waste and handling potential accidents. The dangers arising from radioactive pollution at all stages of operation, whose effects will extend for hundreds of years, cannot be taken lightly.

However, developments in the hydrogen sector, as a carrier and storage medium of energy, will reduce the importance of nuclear plants as a stable source of carbon-free electricity. The technology for extracting hydrogen from water by electrolysis has been around for a long time, waiting for the development of cheap methods, based on seawater and electricity produced from renewable sources, to quickly make hydrogen affordable for everyone. Thus, carbon-free hydrogen can be used directly to feed factories, vehicles, ships and planes, or to produce clean electricity at any time. Arab oil-producing countries can be leaders in production and export, as they are already rich in the essential elements for the production of clean green hydrogen, namely the sun and seawater. They can also produce hydrogen using electricity generated from their own fossil fuels, in parallel with carbon capture and storage.

Diversifying the energy mix is very important. However, hydrogen remains a safer and more secure source to keep oil-producing countries a key player in energy markets in the future. Most importantly, hydrogen does not carry with it the risks of nuclear energy.