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Does Iran Need Nuclear Power?


Iran is building nuclear reactors and fuel enrichment facilities at several locations, ostensibly to replace fossil fuels. Iran's energy balance is a critical factor in assessing whether they are building reactors żfor peaceful uses or to produce atomic weapons.

Several articles and studies make the case that Iranian energy consumption has been increasing drastically in the past decages, eg - Mohammed Sahimi at http://www.payvand.com/news/03/oct/1022.html and żhttp://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/iranenv.html.

It is certain that Iranian energy consumption has been increasing, and that there is a serious pollution problem in Iran, but it is far from clear that development of nuclear energy is the best and most economical and most urgent alternative to be pursued. Iran has 9% of the world's proven oil reserves, and almost 16 percent of the world's gas reserves (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/iea/table81.html) , second only to Russia. Iran also has considerable quantities of coal. Their energy consumption is about the same as that of Saudi Arabia, and far less per capita. Gas is a clean burning fuel that can be used for generating electricity and nuclear power. It is cheaper than nuclear power.

Mohammed Sahimi makes the case for Iranian nuclear power at http://www.payvand.com/news/03/oct/1022.html. As Sahimi notes, "Iran's 60 major oil fields are mostly old, with some being depleted altogether. From 1979 until 1997 no major investment was made in Iran's oil industry. A study in 1998 concluded that, out of the 60 oil fields, 57 of them need major technical studies, repairs, upgrading, and repressurizing which would require, over a 15 year period, $40 billion! "

Indeed, if that is the case, why invest in a nuclear program, when an investment in oil or gas will bring greater returns? Is Iran simply going to abandon its huge oil and gas reserves? The sum of $40 billion will save 99 billion barrels of proven oil reserves it seems. That comes to an investment of about 40 cents a barrel, to allow them to sell oil at $25 to 30 dollars a barrel at current prices. Isn't that a good investment?

Sahimi writes:

"At the same time, since early 1990s, Iran's consumption of oil has been increasing at an alarming rate of 8% per year, and her total energy consumption has increased from 1.6 quadrillion Btu (quads) in 1980 to more than 5.5 quads at present - an increase of more than 280%. If this trend continues, Iran will become a net oil importer by 2010, a gigantic catastrophe for a country which relies on oil for 80% of her foreign currency and 45% of her total annual budget. If that happens, how will Iran be able to feed her population, estimated to reach 100 million by 2025, and also spend on her development and national security?"

Iranian per capita energy consumption is still not very high. Total energy consumption is about the same as Saudi Arabia, (about 100 Metric Ton Oil Equivalents). Since the proven oil reserves are not all the oil reserves, it is unlikely that Iran will need to import oil if she develops the existing resources. Proven reserves are usually a very low estimate of actual retrievable oil. New methods are also making it economically feasible to extract oil from previously problematic sources such as oil sands and shale.

The obvious solution that suggests itself, is to increase industrial output, rather than investing in nuclear reactors, and to make petroleum more expensive, to give people incentives to drive energy efficient automobiles, insulate buildings etc. and make energy efficient industries. Making petroleum a bit more expensive can also help to fund exploration and development.

Sahimi writes: "The fact is that, despite considerable efforts over the past 30 years, Iran's industrial output, aside from her oil industry, accounts for only 15% of her gross domestic product. "

The oil industry itself accounts for about 15% of the economy, and industry uses only about a quarter of the energy. Over 60% is used for transport, residential and commercial use. (http://www.worldenergy.org/wec-geis/publications/reports/pedc/cases/iran.asp)

This suggests that fuel conservation can save energy and also clean up the environment.

Sahimi notes:

" But some of the costs of consuming oil and gas are not directly included in our energy bill, nor are they paid for by the companies that sell us energy. These are the hidden costs of oil and gas that we pay indirectly for the health problems caused by air, water and soil pollution resulting from using oil and gas, environmental degradation caused by carbon emission and global warming, and acid rains. Since the producers and consumers do not pay directly for such costs, society as a whole must pay for them. Thus, although such costs are hidden, they are real. "

However, nobody is going to use nuclear energy to heat houses or power automobiles. Energy efficiency and use of gas, and not nuclear power, will do more to help the pollution problem. Of course, nuclear waste disposal and safety concerns are problematic. Before the 3 Mile Island meltdown and Chernobyl it was possible to view nuclear powered electricity as a safe source of energy, but times have changed, and ecologists are not recommending nuclear reactors, especially not Russian-built reactors, as safe solutions.

Nuclear energy is not going to solve the problems of pollution arising from heating with heating oil, which is still cheaper than electricity for that purpose (but not as clean and cheap as gas can be) and transportation - not in the near future.

Sahimi notes:

"At the same time, in 40-50 years, when oil will no longer be the major source of energy and will be replaced by gas, Iran (the gas reserves of which will last for at least 200 years) will be in an excellent position to be the main supplier to Asia and Europe. "

The proven gas reserves will last 200 years! (the actual ones may last many more) Can anyone imagine that it is economical to invest in nuclear energy today, in order to stave off a fuel shortage in 200 years?

Sahimi notes:

"Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran's population has more than doubled, from 32 to nearly 70 million, while her oil production is only 70% of the pre-Revolution level. This then begs the following question: Why is it that the US and her allies believed, in the 1970s, that Iran needed nuclear reactors and nuclear energy, when Iran's population was less than half of the present and her oil production was much more than now, but they now argue that Iran does not need nuclear energy? How do the US and her allies suggest Iran should feed, house and educate her population, create jobs for her army of educated people, and develop the country, all with oil and gas alone, while she has very significant uranium deposits that can be used for generating electricity? "

Actually, it begs several questions. "Why did petroleum production decrease?" is the first one that comes to mind- Sahimi has not taken up that question. If it is just general inefficiency, why wouldn't same problem plague the nuclear program? As for why the Shah was encouraged to adopt nuclear power, while the present regime is not, Sahimi answers his own question in a different article: http://www.payvand.com/news/03/oct/1039.html

"Nothing protects Iran's national security and interests better than acceptance of her political system and government by Iranian people, which would happen only if a truly democratic system is established in Iran."

Of course, Iran should have a right to develop peaceful nuclear power and use its Uranium resources. However, we are certainly entitled to be skeptical regarding the claim that Iran is putting all that money into uranium enrichment to replace its abundant fossil fuel reserves, which it has allowed to languish, and as an alternative to considerable potential for hydroelectric power.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000078.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 2 comments

Already, under the Shah, Iran was interested in Nuclear power plant. It was a partner of France in the Phenix surgenerator project.

Also, it can be considered a good investment to save oil at home to export it.

Posted by Paul @ 10/16/2003 10:16 PM CST

Hi Paul,
Yes it is true. In fact, Bushehr was initiated under the Shah and one Bushehr reactor was 85% built by the time the revolution occurred in 1979. Siemens was to have supplied the reactors. The Ayatollah said the project is "un-Islamic." Possibly Siemens had backed out. Don't forget that the reactor project was started when Iran was a rich country, friendly to the west, and before 3 mile Island and Chernobyl, when nuclear power was thought to be same and environmentally friendly.
The Iraqis damaged Bushehr and in any case there was probably pressure on the Germans not to cooperate with Iraq at the time.
European countries were busy helping Saddam back then.
Frankly, nobody in USA cared if the Shah did get the bomb, since he was an ally. In any case, I doubt if there were plans for all those centrifuges.

Posted by Moderator @ 10/18/2003 06:30 PM CST

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