Despite long odds, Iraq weighs up nuclear option in bid to solve energy crisis

Summary: Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, faced with many obstacles in rebuilding Iraq’s nuclear energy programme, gets a boost from the French.

We thank Zainab Mehdi for the article we circulate below. Zainab is a British-Iraqi researcher ​for the Donor Interventions and Water Governance in Basra Project at the London School of Economics and a freelance journalist specialising in Iraqi contemporary politics, culture, and history.

A month has passed since French President Emmanuel Macron visited Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Iraq to discuss energy cooperation and security issues.

Following the meeting held in Baghdad 2 September, Al-Kadhimi explained that he and the president had spoken about a “future project,” involving Iraq’s use of nuclear energy to generate electricity and resolve the country’s chronic power shortages. Their conversation was no doubt helped by the fact that the two countries have history on the nuclear power front.

Nuclear power is the largest source of electricity in France. As an immediate outcome of the 1973 oil crisis, the country pursued its energy independence from 1974 onwards by going forward with the ‘Messmer Plan,’ designed to free France from its dependency on Middle East oil.

The French were also in the market to sell their nuclear reactors and struck a deal with Saddam Hussein in 1976. They  agreed to construct a research reactor along with accompanying laboratories. Named after Osiris, the Egyptian God of the dead, the French reactor, was renamed “Osiraq” to combine the name of Osiris with that of the beneficiary state; construction began in 1979. Eventually referred to as “Osirak” by the French and “Tammuz” by the Iraqis (after the month that Saddam and the Baathists seized power in 1968), the reactor, according to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), was designed for the  “…peaceful use of atomic energy.”

The Osirak facility was destroyed by an Israeli strike in 1981

The Israelis weren’t convinced and in 1981 launched an audacious and successful strike that destroyed much of the Osirak facility. Though widely condemned for the attack Israel could point to the efforts by Saddam to acquire weapons-grade uranium as evidence that his intentions were less peaceful than claimed.

Despite UNSC condemnation and various scholars commenting on Israel’s overestimation of the Iraqi nuclear threat, it can be said that Israel felt a great sense of relief when in 1991, the US drove the final nail in the coffin by flying 970 airstrikes against Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) targets in Iraq. As part of that wider aerial assault the Americans hit both the nuclear reactors rebuilt in the 1980s to restore Osirak; one being a larger reactor, and the other an Isis light-water reactor.

Without the nuclear alternative, Iraq continues to resort to conventional energy sources, which have proven to be unreliable and insufficient, particularly after the 2003 US invasion. To this day, electricity disruptions continue to be a major grievance and were at the heart of ongoing protests which began in Baghdad on 1 October 2019.

Harry Istepanian, an independent energy consultant based in Washington, told Arab Digest:

“The population of Iraq is growing at 2.32% annually, adding almost 1 million to the population every year. The demand for electricity is increasing by 7-9% annually which means that each year, Iraq needs to add 1,500-2,000 MW to the grid to sustain the current supply for electricity which has almost 7,000-9,000 MW deficit in supply.”

Given these circumstances, resorting to the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, as opposed to using conventional energy based on fossil fuels, is seen as a more sustainable solution. Increased demand, driven by the rapid population increase cannot be met by the aging and inefficient hydrocarbon fuelled power plants  currently operating in Iraq.

Despite there being a growing demand for electricity, there are several obstacles which may hinder the country’s development of a nuclear project. One is the cost as Iraq remains in the grip of a deep economic crisis, whilst the other obstacles include Iraq’s political instability. Additionally, since 2003 Iraq has lost much of its technical expertise, with many Iraqi scientists either having died or emigrated abroad.

If Iraq can overcome the above-mentioned obstacles, its next obstacle would be to gain international trust in upholding the commitment to peaceful nuclear use and not repeat the past mistakes of attempting to use peaceful nuclear as cover for the pursuit of weapons capability.

But a far greater obstacle to worry about is terrorist attacks, also a major concern of the international community. A successful attack on a nuclear plant by a resurgent ISIS could have devastating consequences; killing or sickening vast numbers of citizens and with long-term environmental consequences if radioactive material is released.

Under these circumstances, Iraq will therefore have to invest heavily in security measures. That in itself is a huge and costly challenge, one that would involve, for example, the so-called US security model , put in place after 9/11.  That focusses on security personnel trained up with military qualifications and with sites required to add “multiple layers of protection with the cores of reactors where the fuel is located (being) the most highly defended areas.”

Given the security risks, uncertainty surrounding support from various countries, as well as financial, technical, political, and economic drawbacks prevailing within Iraqi society today, al-Kadhimi’s ability to succeed in reigniting Iraq’s nuclear energy capabilities is far from guaranteed.

However, that being said, al-Kadhimi remains optimistic. So much so that on 24 September he ordered the creation of a team tasked to construct a nuclear reactor for research.  With renewables  gaining momentum  and Iraq’s economy continuing to sustain significant damage from low oil prices, nuclear is a gamble but al-Kadhimi must be hoping that with the encouragement of its old partner France the odds may be reduced.

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