Going Nuclear - Power, That Is

The benefits that nuclear power would hold for Israel are difficult to ignore. The Israeli public deserves a serious, well-informed debate on the issue.

Israel's demand for electricity is projected to nearly double in the next 20 years, while use during peak hours is currently nearing the maximum generating capacity. Without a significant increase in capacity, the country could soon suffer from chronic power shortages. The recent discovery of natural gas off Israel's northern Mediterranean coast may give some the impression that the country's energy security is guaranteed for decades to come. This is a false assumption.

While natural gas is a good short-term solution for Israel's power needs, the quantities of gas that can be commercially produced from this latest find are far from certain, and even under optimistic scenarios they would not be enough to satisfy the country's growing long-term energy needs. This is why close examination of the economic and strategic cost-effectiveness of civilian nuclear power is warranted.

This is a particularly timely idea, since most of Israel's neighbors, some well endowed with oil and gas reserves - including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Iran and Algeria - have concluded that nuclear power should play a role in their energy portfolio.

No energy source is free of risks or challenges. This is certainly true for nuclear power. Issues related to waste disposal, terrorist threats and nuclear safety should not be underestimated. But nor should they be overstated to the point where nuclear power is eliminated from the discussion about Israel's energy security future.

Nuclear power is one of the cheapest sources of steady, reliable electricity. It is clean, emits neither greenhouse gases nor harmful pollutants and, contrary to popular perceptions, is very safe. Across the world, 437 nuclear power plants are currently operating safely in 30 countries, and provide 16 percent of the world's electricity needs. There have been only a few isolated incidents, including the deadly accident in Chernobyl.

Many countries are now realizing that despite its limitations, nuclear power can be a vital part of their energy security. France is nearly 80 percent reliant on nuclear power and is completely insulated from Russia's shenanigans and natural gas cutoffs; the United States has 104 commercial reactors and growing; and China and India are building dozens of plants. Italy has just reversed its 20-year-old anti-nuclear policy. Even in Germany, where anti-nuclear sentiment is part of the culture, there has been a change of heart toward nuclear power.

While building a nuclear power plant is not cheap operational costs are likely to decrease over time, as opposed to thermal plants, which rely on increasingly expensive coal and natural gas. Unlike oil and gas, which come mostly from countries hostile to Israel, the relatively small amount of uranium needed to fuel a nuclear power plant could be obtained from major uranium exporters and some of Israel's most trusted allies, such as Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada and South Africa.

Because of the high population density in the coastal plain, any nuclear power plant would have to be situated in the Negev. A station there could have the added advantage of being able to provide cheap energy to aid in the region's economic development. The brackish water of the Negev aquifer could not only be used to cool the plant, but could also, together with piped-in Mediterranean water, be desalinated in the process using the plant's excess heat.

Conventional wisdom holds that in order to develop civilian nuclear power, Israel must sign the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and abandon its long-held strategy of nuclear ambiguity. But this axiom is already being altered by the seemingly unstoppable nuclearization of the Middle East, which is likely to change many aspects of Washington's foreign policy. Additionally, the NPT regime was recently breached, with the 2008 signing of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, which allows India, not an NPT signatory, to obtain uranium fuel and equipment from the United States. With this precedent, Israel may find it easier to negotiate civilian nuclear deals with foreign countries without compromising its national security.

Should Israel decide to go for nuclear power, it should be done in a way that advances the trend of privatizing the electricity market. The state-owned Israel Electric Corporation has no innate advantage when it comes to constructing and operating nuclear power plants. Its monopoly in the power sector has been a source of inefficiency and wasteful spending. There is no reason why a nuclear power plant should be used to further bolster this monopoly.

In the end, the decision on whether to deploy nuclear power will have to be a product of a serious and comprehensive analysis, one that takes into account all the pros and cons, the economic feasibility and the efficacy of competing energy sources, including coal, natural gas and renewable energy. This process should be undertaken by a national commission diverse enough to present the full range of options and considerations. The benefits that nuclear power would hold for Israel are difficult to ignore. The Israeli public deserves a serious, well-informed debate on the issue.

Dr. Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based think tank focused on energy security.