Ali Ahmad is a Research Fellow studying Energy Policy at Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Managing the Atom & International Security Program. His research interests include energy security and resilience and the political economy of nuclear energy in newcomer markets, with focus on the Middle East. Ali previously served as Director of the Energy Policy and Security Program at the American University of Beirut and was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Program on Science & Global Security. He also serves as a senior consultant at the World Bank, advising the Energy & Extractive Industries Global Practice. Ali holds a degree in Physics from the Lebanese University and a PhD in Engineering from Cambridge University.
MF: Good afternoon. I'm Mahnaz Fancy, the Communications and External Relations Manager at Sharjah Architecture Triennial and a cultural critic. Today's podcast is the third episode in our Architecture+ Infrastructure series of SATtalks.
I'm pleased to welcome our guest today, Ali Ahmad, who joins us from Beirut.
As a quick introduction: Ali is a research fellow studying energy policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School's project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program. His research interests include energy security and resilience and the political economy of nuclear energy in newcomer markets, with a focus on the Middle East. Ali previously served as the Director of the Energy Policy and Security program at the American University of Beirut and was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University's program on Science and Global Security. He also serves as a senior consultant at the World Bank advising the Energy and Extractive Industries Global practice. Ali holds a degree in Physics from the Lebanese University and a PhD in engineering from Cambridge university.
Hi Ali, thank you for making the time to speak with us today.
AA: Hi Mahnaz. Thank you very much. It's my pleasure to be a guest on the series.
MF: Earlier this year, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation announced the opening of the Barakah nuclear plant in Dafrah in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, signifying a shift away from the UAE's reliance on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs and those of its growing cities and population. In this conversation, we will examine what this shift to nuclear energy means at various scales—from the individual to the urban—and how energy policy at the national, regional, and global levels impacts the future of cities in the UAE and wider Gulf.
So, let's just jump in. I want to start by giving our listeners a bit of context: the UAE and other regional countries are investing in various alternative energy technologies, including nuclear power. Can you explain how the race to develop alternative energy sources in the GCC is related to region-specific concerns?
AA: First, I think it's important to understand what energy means as a service. Perhaps the best way to do that is to imagine our lives without it. You mentioned earlier that I'm talking to you today from Beirut and Lebanon suffers prolonged and frequent power outages, so most Lebanese citizens can very much relate to the importance of electricity in our daily life. Electricity is pretty much the nervous system of our modern societies.
Given the important role of energy in our society, it is understandable why governments and policy makers around the world, including those in the GCC, give much attention to energy policy and infrastructure investments. After all, our access to energy is one of the major recognized drivers of economic growth. Now, in the context of the GCC, not only do we have countries that are producers of oil and gas, which is a main component of the global energy scene. But those countries, if we look at their profile, are also large consumers of energy.
So, countries in the GCC have one of the highest consumption per capita for energy. To give you an example, in recent years, the the domestic consumption of oil in Saudi Arabia totaled a quarter of its oil production, which is mainly used for power generation. So, clearly, there is a need to respond to higher demand of energy in the GCC and in the region. And, this demand is, by the way, increasing due to economic and population growth but, at the same time, these countries have economic interest of maximizing the profit or the revenues they make on their oil and gas exports. And, these exports remain the main source of income for, for these countries. Solving this problem takes you directly to what you mentioned earlier about this race to build an alternative energy infrastructure.
And, not only as an economic necessity, not only as a way to diversify energy, but these infrastructures are part of a wider narrative of building a modern state, a modern society. And, in that context, the UAE has been a great example with what it has done over the last decade.
MF: Could you maybe explain to us how the UAE has managed to make this big leap on the energy front in such a short time?
AA: Indeed. I think "big leap" is the right description here. And what the UAE has managed to do over the last few years is truly remarkable. It's easier to announce ambitious plans or goals and visions, but it's much harder to, to implement them. And to the UAE's credit, whether you agree or disagree with the country's overall energy policy, the leadership of the UAE has shown a real commitment to whatever choice they have gone for now. Of course, having such level of progress would not have been possible without the existence of a certain enabling factor: the centrality of decision-making. I mean, you have rulers that expect a rapid implementation of projects and the high commitment of those rulers to these projects instills confidence and in project developers and technology developers, which are attracted to the UAE. And, in the process, what this confidence offers is lower investment costs because usually what drives investment costs in other country is the lack of certainty and the lack of political backing. In the UAE, you have a top-level political backing of energy ventures and across the board of all energy projects that the country has done over the last decade.
Another factor that I think is often overlooked, but appears to play a major role as well is the increasingly elastic social contract in the country and across the GCC in general. But it's particularly relevant to the case of the UAE. I think this elasticity in the social contract could, in part, explain higher public acceptance towards nuclear energy. Remember that lot of countries have antinuclear sentiment and antinuclear movements, primarily because of the fear of repeating past nuclear disasters. And, the countries in the region that also aspire to have nuclear programs have some notable public disapproval of nuclear energy. Interestingly, we don't observe that in the case of the UAE. So, I think that could be in part explained by this elasticity in the social contract.
MF: That's a really interesting and important point and I'm excited to pull out threads from that as we proceed with our conversation, but, right now, I want to go back to one of the things you said about how the energy needs in the Gulf being related to population growth and therefore to urban development. We understand that energy is a major driver of economic and urban growth, but how does GCC energy policy accommodate that or account for that?
AA: Given the high levels of domestic energy consumption, GCC governments realize that it's not enough to continue to build power generation capacity. Something has to be done on the consumer level, primarily to incentivize lower levels of consumption or at least to minimize the government subsidies that support these higher levels of consumptions. Now, as you can imagine, removing subsidies is a tricky thing; it remains something that causes public resistance. If we look at the numbers, the total cost of energy subsidies across the GCC per year is around $160 billion. So, this is a staggering number and clearly, unsustainable. This vast amount of funds can be reallocated to serve other public purposes such as education, healthcare, but also, they can be used to build energy infrastructure that can serve everybody and that's why I think that some GCC states, including the UAE, seem to have capitalized on the recent decline of oil prices to communicate the unsustainability of the subsidy model to their citizens. And, we have seen, to a large extent, acceptance of these moves.
MF: Can we push this a little bit further and ask what other connections there might be between GCC or UAE energy infrastructures and the communities that they serve?
AA: I think the way the UAE, or more specifically the Abu Dhabi government, has promoted the nuclear project to various stakeholders in the early day of the project development was something that shows that there's a relationship between the public and energy that goes beyond the service provision model. Right? Since the beginning of the development of the Barakah project the leadership of other energy establishments within the country—such as ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and Masdar City— were brought in and included in the conversation about nuclear. Both, the head of ADNOC and the head of Masdar City currently serve on the board of the nuclear regulator and that was a very symbolic and important step to actually smooth the inclusion of a new energy source that can potentially be faced by some resistance from the public and from the energy establishment: so, this preemptive approach was very effective in ensuring the smooth transition.
Now, focusing more on the public interaction with this energy source: in the early days of the Baraka development project, the Abu Dhabi government started building training and academic capacities—such as creating a nuclear engineering department in Khalifa University and bringing top academic experts to teach in that university. Many students have been sent abroad to obtain degrees and training in the nuclear field, so you can imagine that those students and their families also now have a major stake in the nuclear project. And now they can act as ambassadors for this energy source and their community. So, if somebody has any questions on nuclear safety, those people would bring in their knowledge of what nuclear safety is and how this reactor is safe to operate in Abu Dhabi. This is really important and this is something we don't see in other countries in the region that plan nuclear power projects. This could also partly justify why there is some sort of public acceptance of nuclear energy in the UAE.
I am cautious to advise that we rely too much on governmental-led communications and citizen engagements; citizens have the responsibility to do their own homework and question, not only the rationale to expand energy infrastructure, but also the cost, environmental impact and safety and security risks associated with all these projects. And, frankly, I cannot think of a more important reason to debate all of these aspects than building a nuclear power plant in a country.
MF: Thank you for laying it out. From what I understand from having read your work and talking to you: the energy question in the UAE and in the Gulf has to do with so many different aspects, right? It's both economic and political at a local level and a regional level, but also at an international level. I think it's important to understand the cost involved with the Baraka power plant so that we can get a sense of how important it is deemed by the political and financial powers that be.
AA: Right. I think you're asking a very important question; after all economics is only one part of the decision-making process on an infrastructure project or an energy project. Clearly, other factors are taken into consideration. Usually, these costs are broken down into two buckets: you have fixed capital and investment costs on one side and you have variable operational costs on the other side. Nuclear, wind, and solar (these three alternative energy sources), their cost is dominated by capital cost; they have very low operational costs. Conventional energy sources, such as oil or gas- fired power plants, are the opposite: they have very high operational costs, which is usually the cost of fuel, but very low capital cost.
Now, between alternative energy sources, nuclear is by far the most capital intensive. Just to give you an example, the capacity costs of the Barakah project would be around 5 billion US dollars per gigawatt and, in comparison, the last solar project in the UAE cost 800 million US dollars. What should be emphasized here is that solar costs continue to witness dramatic reduction. There is also some level of technological advancement and efficiency advancement that makes it possible for these costs to be reduced even further.
However, nuclear energy and solar or wind are different sources of energy. Wind and solar are "intermittent" sources, so they only generate power for a fraction of the day: when the sun is not shining at night or where the wind is not blowing these sources do not operate. Nuclear power is a different kind of energy source, we call "baseload": baseload generates power around the clock. So, in a way, there is a value to nuclear which generates power at any time that you need it and this quality we call it "dispatchability." So, nuclear energy is dispatchable whenever there is a demand for it. And, this dispatchability is not currently fully present in solar and wind, pending the development of energy storage: once that happens it will be a game-changer because storage would make solar and wind dispatchable technologies.
MF: To make this more understandable for the lay person like me, it would be useful, if you could help us understand the difference between these in terms of cost and an output of energy. What is the difference between major infrastructure versus a kind of decentralized energy mix. What does it mean to have an energy mix? And, and why is it a good thing?
AA: Absolutely. I think that, first, it's important to distinguish between power and energy. So, a power plant can have a certain capacity. For example, a typical nuclear power plant can have the capacity of a 1000 megawatt or one gigawatt. And, you can also have the same capacity of a solar power plant. Now, both have the same capacity, but both do not give the same amount of energy. Because, this capacity (the 1000 megawatt) in the case of nuclear is produced around the clock—so, at any moment, if you tap into this nuclear power reactor to take electricity out of it, it gives you fixed 1000 megawatt. On the other hand, when it comes to solar or wind or other intermittent renewable energy power plants, sometimes, when there is no wind, it gives you a zero. And, other times, it gives you 30% of 1000. So, because of this variability, the total amount of energy produced by each energy source would be different from the other. I was saying earlier that the cost of capacity for nuclear is much higher than solar or wind, but even when you take that into account this variability, nuclear is still very, very expensive compared to solar.,
The value for nuclear right now, in the context of the GCC economies, is that at least it can provide this baseload generation and replace gas or oil thermal power plants. But again, when energy storage becomes economically competitive, then the combination of energy storage with wind and solar together would actually eliminate any value for nuclear energy.
MF: So, in a way, what you're telling us is that not all alternative energy sources are equal, right? Also, is nuclear energy "alternative" energy or "renewable" energy because I'm finding the terms being used kind of loosely at times?
AA: Yes, I agree. I think these two terms are confusing and people usually use them interchangeably. So, nuclear, wind, and solar are "alternative" energy sources, in the sense that they provide an alternative to the conventional energy sources such as coal, oil and gas. "Renewable" means that the fuel required for these energy sources is infinite, which is the case of solar and wind. But, when it comes to nuclear, uranium is not infinite. The term I prefer to use when I talk about these resources together is "alternative" energy because nuclear cannot be classified as a renewable energy source.
I would like to go back to the question about if all sources are equal, because I think it's important to understand how do we compare energy sources to each other? The main thing that is usually compared is cost and that's expected, however, there are other factors that should be also taken into consideration. I would like to highlight that historically energy generation has been kept away from the consumers’ view. So, power generation usually takes place behind closed facilities that largely resemble industrial structures and the only visible side is this iconic cooling tower and all the emissions that come out of it. In parallel to this, there's a narrative that all that consumers care about is service delivery, which to a certain extent, is true in our region. We, as consumers, we don't usually ask or think about what source of electricity that comes through our house and powers our TV or microwave.
However, I think this discourse of separating generation and consumption and ultimately consumers is being challenged, at least in two ways: first, policymakers are increasingly asked to justify what energy mix they wish to have and, in doing so, they often talk about other externalities beyond electricity provision, such as environmental aspects, job creation, building a technology base, and so on. Second, I think now citizens are taking a more proactive stance. When people consciously design energy- efficient buildings or when they install a rooftop solar panels, they become active players in the energy space: they are no longer only consumers.
Taking these two aspects together, one can arrive to the conclusion that not all energy resources are equal and certainly not all alternative energy sources are equal. The value of each energy source is seen differently by different stakeholders. So, while a large centralized baseload nuclear power reactor like Barakah--which will produce 5.6 gigawatts of power, enough to power a quarter of the UAE energy needs—carries huge energy-diversification value for some, it entails huge cost and security risks for others.
Personally, I believe that renewable energy sources should be the future of our cities. Renewables have been cost competitive at least since 2014. Compared to nuclear, renewables are less environmentally problematic and, also, renewable can be deployed at any scale: you can have a utility scale—renewable solar project that generates gigawatts of electricity—but also you can have a smaller solar panel on your rooftop. So, you have these really scalable effects with renewables that you don't have with the nuclear.
MF: When the Barakah project was announced the articles and press statements pointed to the environmental benefits of this shift to nuclear energy. Can you detail a little bit further what this means here in specific, this shift in nuclear energy as "positive for the environment" and how this compares with global trends towards choosing clean energy over fossil fuel?
AA: I don't think the UAE decision in 2008 to invest in nuclear energy was primarily based on environmental factors. That's not to say that environmental issues were not one of the supportive arguments, but I don't think it was the main argument. Clearly, at that time, the UAE was looking more into energy security and economic reasons, because although solar and wind are more cost-competitive right now, this was not the case back in 2008. In 2008, if I'm not mistaken, oil prices were at a very high level so there was a huge opportunity cost for the UAE to burn oil domestically: there was some economic merit to having a nuclear energy. Clearly, since then, the economic landscape of energy has completely transformed.
If you compare nuclear with solar and wind, all of these don't emit a lot of carbon dioxide. Nuclear has other problems, which we don't have in solar panels or wind turbines. So, while nuclear could be a solution in reducing carbon emissions, it creates a problem with the issue of nuclear waste and, until now, we don't have a solid scientific answer to how to deal with the issue: this nuclear waste will sit there for thousands of years. So, at least in my view that would make nuclear energy less environmentally friendly.
Having said that, I think there are also other important factors of comparison: construction time required to build these projects. Usually, a solar or wind power project takes 1 or 2 years to fully complete while on average it takes 8 to 10 years for a nuclear reactor to be built. So, the commissioning of the Barakah project started in 2012 and it was projected to take only 5 years, but it was delayed for 3 years. And, by the way, this is not only exclusive to the Barakah, almost all new nuclear reactor projects around the world suffer from time delays and cost overruns.
So, why am I mentioning this in the context of an environmental conversation? I mean, if you want to really solve climate change, usually you would go for solutions that can be easily deployed in a timely manner. So, the question now: if we want to have this massive expansion of alternative energy that does not emit carbon dioxide which one has the highest chance of being deployed fast and also deployed in all contexts? While nuclear energy can be deployed and developed in industrial countries with minimal problems, it cannot be deployed in more complicated situations such as fragile countries or countries that have either conflict or bordering conflicts. There are so many obstacles that face the expansion of nuclear power as an answer to climate change while these issues, or these concerns do not exist when it comes to solar or wind.
MF: As somebody who grew up seeing the Chernobyl accident and then more recently Fukushima nuclear plant accident, potential threat of any mishap has been instilled as a fear though I'm presuming that, over the years, technological advances and increasing precautionary measures have been implemented so that such events are not repeated in the future. As a resident in the UAE, I am conscious that this is a small country and therefore any nuclear plants are not going to be very far from our cities—Abu Dhabi itself is so close Dhafra where the Barakah plant is. What are the thoughts around this question of safety?
AA: I think this is a very important question. So, earlier I mentioned these engagement efforts that the government has conducted to obtain public buy-in for the nuclear project. And in these efforts for the safety of nuclear reactor was discussed and, clearly, there was a case made that these reactors are safe. Personally, I think the issue with nuclear safety is not about "if" an accident will happen, the issue of it is “if it could" happen. So, it's a matter of possibility. The question is: can we completely eliminate the possibility of an accident? And, the answer to that is no--even by the position of nuclear engineers , who calculate the probabilities of these accidents and these probabilities are never zero: they are very small, but they are never zero—and I think the problem with the nuclear accident is that although the probability of an accident is very low, the impact is huge. Fukushima has taught us to really think the unthinkable when it comes to assessing the risks of nuclear power and their impacts.
Most people think that nuclear accidents are rare because if you ask somebody on the street to name nuclear accidents, they might say Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island in the US, but the fact is that, actually, we have way more nuclear accidents than that. But the reason that the public can only name these three is because those are the catastrophic events that have happened. So, the other accidents were either less problematic, or maybe have not been reported even.
This connects well to the issue of the UAE and the GCC that you have mentioned. GCC nuclear accidents have the potential to be even more catastrophic than the accidents that I mentioned earlier because you have cities with high concentration of population but these cities have little or no option to evacuate people if that were needed. Another aspect, which is also very important is the linkages between energy and water security—if any nuclear accident takes place, there's a possibility that the water of the Gulf might be contaminated. And, GCC countries rely heavily on desalinated water—some countries the reliance touches 80 or 90%. So, any water contamination poses a real threat to the water security in these countries Because of these reasons, nuclear safety should be a top priority in terms of policymaking and the region. So far, I am confident that the UAE government is taking the best measures to ensure Baraka is safe.
MF: Thank you, you're helping us put together these various strands of information that we, as a layman to this field, collect in bits and pieces of and don't always understand how to put together.
In your 2019 article about South Korea's nuclear energy exports to the UAE, you mentioned something really interesting, which is that the energy transactions between the Gulf and Asian economies such as China, Japan, and South Korea and many of these represent nations with the highest demand for oil and natural gas. Can you elaborate a little bit more about how the move to nuclear energy is related to this global energy market and the UAE's role in it?
AA: Sure. I can think of two dynamics that we can highlight. First is the country to country dynamic that you mentioned, but also, perhaps, we can talk about the global level of energy markets. So, on the country level, there is no doubt that energy transactions between states be it directly through exportation or importation of oil and gas, or indirectly through the exports or the imports of expertise, or infrastructure development—such as the case of Barakah, which has a strong South Korean involvement—is a form of diplomacy. I mean, the choice of the South Korean nuclear vendor to build Barakah is not random when we realized that South Korea is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) trade partners with the UAE. So, you're absolutely right to highlight this transactional form of relationship between countries.
Now on, on the global level, the nuclear share of electricity remains, if I'm not mistaken, around 10% of the global energy generation. So, it's not really a large number, clearly global energy generation is still dominated by fossil fuel—coal, natural gas, and oil—and of course, renewables as well. Contrary to nuclear, renewables are making big steps and being endorsed by governments and communities alike. I don't think that the expansion of nuclear on the global level would be as fast as some industry proponents are expecting, for the reasons I referred to earlier—the challenges related to financing and economics.
Concerns for reserving oil for export globally and the heavy electricity needs of a GCC population are fundamentally linked and, environmental commitment or not, in the end in this region it does have to do with the fact that climate change is happening.
MF: So, thinking about these various factors that go into energy policy. Where do we go from here in the GCC and in the UAE?
AA: Earlier we discussed the relationship between energy resources and climate change, but one thing that is important to note is that this relationship is bi-directional. So, the choice of energy sources clearly does have an impact on climate change, but also climate change in return does have an impact on energy sources, for example—and this is one of the projects I'm working on right now is how climate-induced events such as heat waves or floods could actually alter or affect the operations of nuclear reactors. For example, if temperatures rise beyond a certain level, then nuclear reactors would have to be shut down because the cooling water would not be cool enough to take out the heat from the reactor. So, you can see there is, there is a number of challenges that are still there that policymakers and uh, academics have to try to work together to find solutions for these challenges.
And UAE will not be, or is not, the only country in the Gulf that is either operating a nuclear reactor: you have Iran, which is currently operating the Bushehr reactor, you have Saudi Arabia planning to build nuclear reactors. So, I think what would be really important is to strengthen the technical cooperation and strengthening the emergency preparedness between these three countries or all the countries. Because if you think about it, if a nuclear accident takes place, its impact will be cross-border all the countries in the region would be impacted. Linking to what we said earlier about water, because everybody on the Gulf takes water from the Gulf. The impact will not be limited to one country; it will affect all countries. So, there is a need to better understand how certain externalities such as climate change impact this source of energy.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Ali Ahmad, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)