September 24, 2021

Nuclear Power Won’t Solve Iraq’s Energy Crisis

On June 29, Iran stopped exporting natural gas and electricity to Iraq due to non-payment. As the temperature rose to more than 120 degrees, the move cut power to millions of Iraqis, turned the city into an oven, and plunged the troubled Prime Minister Mustafa Kadimi’s government into another political storm. Although Iran’s move was clearly intended to increase Tehran’s influence over its neighbors, it also raised questions about Iraq’s proposal last month to restart the civilian nuclear program, which once caused proliferation problems.

Iraq is the second largest producer of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and has the largest oil and natural gas reserves on the planet. Iraq is supposed to be self-sufficient in energy, but decades of war destruction and poor management, coupled with excessive dependence on oil and natural gas exports, mean that the country cannot generate enough energy to meet demand. On the contrary, one-quarter to one-third of Iraq’s electricity is produced by Iran’s pipelines, and Iraq also directly imports about 5% of its electricity from Iran. This is an uneasy dependence on long-term enemies.

The Iraqi government owed Iran $4 billion in unpaid utilities at the end of June, but the coronavirus pandemic and other economic problems made it difficult to pay. The funds released by Iraq must implement complex financial gimmicks to circumvent US sanctions on Iran, a process that Iran says takes too long.

In this context, Iraq’s announcement of plans to spend US$40 billion to build eight nuclear reactors for civilian energy production is puzzling. Nuclear power will diversify the country’s energy sources and reduce the oil country’s dependence on energy imports from neighboring countries, but there are faster and cheaper ways to help millions of Iraqis who are currently unable to get electricity due to the extreme heat.

Iraq’s nuclear heritage. Iraq received its first research reactor from the Soviet Union in 1962, and several more in the following two decades. Although these reactors are said to have been developed for peaceful purposes, Iraq launched a secret nuclear weapons program in the early 1970s, violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed in 1968. Israel, worried that Iraq might develop nuclear weapons, bombed the Osiraq reactor in 1981, pushing Iraq’s nuclear weapons program underground. Over the next decade, Iraq has been experimenting with different methods to secretly enrich uranium to weapon-grade levels (usually 90% uranium 235), while also conducting additional research on nuclear weapons design.

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After the 1991 Gulf War, the UN Security Council ordered the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to dismantle the program of Iraq’s nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency removed all weapons-grade nuclear material from Iraq and destroyed or disabled the country’s nuclear facilities.

However, Iraq’s unwillingness to cooperate with international inspectors, coupled with then-President Saddam Hussein’s tendency to exaggerate his country’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities, led US intelligence agencies to incorrectly assess that Iraq it is hiding its nuclear weapons program. This assessment led to the 2003 US invasion, and it was later discovered that Hussein had not reinitiated the plan.

The Iraqi government strives to comply with international non-proliferation standards in the post-Hussein era. Iraq ratified an additional protocol to the IAEA in 2012, giving the IAEA a deeper understanding of the country’s nuclear activities, and in 2013 it ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. The UN Security Council lifted restrictions on Iraq’s nuclear industry in 2010.

Current and former government officials often raise the idea of ​​using nuclear power to solve the country’s dire power shortage. This has led to the lack of electricity in most of the country during the hot summer, which is one of the main causes of political problems. turmoil in recent years. In June
, Kamal Hussein Latif, chairman of the Iraqi Radioactive Sources Authority, stated that the Iraqi government is currently negotiating with Russia’s Rosatom on a $ 40 billion plan to build eight nuclear reactors. Latif also said Iraq discussed the plan with French, US and South Korean officials.

Rosatom has signed contracts with several neighboring Iraqi countries (including Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Egypt) to build nuclear reactors, although the contract with Jordan subsequently failed. 44,444,400 billion dollars in question. Part of Iraq’s nation-building strategy is to secure more energy supplies, and Baghdad uses nuclear television as an attractive way to meet this challenge. The proposed eight-reactor plan will provide the country with 11 gigawatts of constant electricity, closing the gap between supply and demand even in the hottest time of year. Iraq will reduce its dependence on Iranian natural gas, release more hydrocarbons for export, and generally limit its dependence on carbon-based fuels. Nuclear power can also increase the legitimacy of the Kadimi government and potentially restore Iraq’s image as an honored member of the civilian nuclear community.

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But this plan has some problems. The establishment and maintenance of nuclear facilities will impose a huge financial burden on governments that are already struggling to provide basic services to their citizens. Falling oil prices in 2020 forced Iraq to use foreign exchange reserves to pay public sector wages and shelved a much smaller plan to repair and upgrade the country’s deteriorating transmission and distribution network. And don’t forget that Iraq owes Iran a $ 4 billion unpaid utility bill, which is the cause of the power outage that has recently swept through the country. Even with preferential terms, a $ 40 billion project is difficult to justify given the government’s difficulty meeting its current tax obligations.

Compounding the affordability issue is the fact that, due to theft or meterless connections, approximately two-thirds of the electricity generated goes unpaid. The government has heavily subsidized electricity bills and customers only have to pay about 10% of their actual electricity costs. Therefore, the Ministry of Electricity needs US $ 12 billion a year to balance its accounts. Adding nuclear power to the mix will make the ministry look more private.

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