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Nuclear power and oil shale

Jun 04,2014 - Last updated at Jun 04,2014

Allegations that the “nuclear lobby” is derailing oil shale developments in Jordan have been heard for some time, but proponents of nuclear power in Jordan have stood by the need to diversify energy sources and for long-range planning, which Jordan has lacked.

In the region, the United Arab Emirates is three years from commissioning its first nuclear power plant unit, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia are diversifying energy to include nuclear power in the mix. And Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer!

Empirical evidence points to nuclear power as being a favoured source of electricity on cost and environmental grounds. 

Nuclear power accounts for 74 per cent of France’s electricity demand; it has allowed France to become the number one net exporter of electricity in Europe.

France also enjoys the cheapest electricity tariffs in Western Europe, and has substituted nuclear energy for petroleum products used in water heating and cooking.

In addition, France has some of the cleanest air in Europe, with only a quarter of the emissions of coal-reliant Germany.

Germany’s nuclear phase out is not endorsed by economists or firms operating there. In recent years, German household electricity prices became almost twice as high as France’s, and rising, while carbon emissions per kWh generated have also risen.

Despite Germany’s renewable energy push, nuclear power is still the second largest single source of electricity (after coal).

Germany and France also decided against exploiting local shale gas due to environmental effects of fracking (the process of extracting gas from shale).

The general operational, maintenance and fuel costs of nuclear power are about 1.8 piasters per kilowatt hour. By contrast, the costs of oil shale (for fuel alone) stand at 4.3 piasters per kilowatt hour.

However, shale plants cost as little as a tenth to construct, resulting in capital costs levelling prices.

Further taxes on carbon emissions favour nuclear power, particularly in light of long-term environmental consequences; alas only for nations where carbon taxes are politically feasible or socially tolerated.

Estonia is set to phase out shale-generated electricity by 2027, in compliance with EU environmental directives (oil shale is responsible for most of Estonia’s pollution).

One of the options being explored is new nuclear power, particularly with Latvia and Lithuania as part of a Baltic network. This is likely to gain momentum, given interruption in Russian gas supply to the EU.

In Jordan’s case, nuclear power is set to supply between 30 and 40 per cent of electricity by 2020, leaving considerable room for other forms of power generation, which include shale, wind, solar and, of course, natural gas.

Jordan is not alone in broadening its energy base. The United Arab Emirates is focusing on nuclear power and solar energy, as well as energy efficiency and better utilisation of natural gas (which the UAE imports).

Nuclear power versus oil shale is set to become an argument of long-term versus short-term planning.

Despite high upfront costs, nuclear power delivers long-term benefits.

By contrast, direct combustion of oil shale represents short-term prospects with considerable long-term environmental consequences.

The long-term viability of oil shale will ultimately depend on how competitive carbon capture and storage technology proves to be.

The writer is an economist specialised in energy economics and environment. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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