At last month’s (July 27-28) second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Morocco moved a step closer toward nuclear cooperation with the Russian Federation by signing an agreement with a subsidiary of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company. Rosatom has been courting Rabat with good reason. Morocco sits on about 73% of the world’s phosphate rock reserves, which happen to also hold an estimated 6.9 million tons of uranium, the largest supply available in any country.
Rabat is eyeing cooperation with Rosatom specifically in the field of seawater desalination, a highly energy-intensive process whose prohibitive power costs currently prevent its widespread use in the Middle East and North Africa. With Morocco and the rest of the MENA region already facing debilitating levels of extreme water scarcity, affordable nuclear-powered desalination fueled by Moroccan uranium could form an important part of the solution to supply desperately needed water for agriculture and human consumption.
Although Russia has taken a preliminary lead in partnering with Morocco, recent advances in American modular nuclear technology also open the door for a comprehensive strategic partnership with the United States on civilian nuclear technology, with the aim of addressing water scarcity and other climate change impacts.
Russia’s Rosatom courts Rabat
On July 27, 2023, the Moroccan Water and Energy Solutions company signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Rusatom Smart Utilities, a subsidiary of Russia’s civilian nuclear power giant, Rosatom. The agreement aims to explore developing water desalination plants in Morocco using Rosatom’s technology in order to provide water for agriculture, industry, and human consumption. Neither the parent company nor this Rosatom subsidiary are currently under U.S. or European Union sanctions. Formalized on the sidelines of the second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, the MoU advances the actualization of a 2017 cooperation memorandum, signed by Morocco’s Ministry of Energy with Rosatom as part of Rabat’s slow and cautious economic engagement with the Kremlin following King Mohammed VI’s landmark visit to Moscow in 2016.
Rabat subsequently chose the venue of the first Russia-Africa Summit, held in Sochi in 2019, to expand its energy cooperation with Moscow. At that summit, Morocco’s MYA Energy concluded a $2.3 billion deal with the Russian state development corporation VEB to build a petrochemical complex and oil refinery in northern Morocco. In October 2022, the Russian government reaffirmed its nuclear cooperation with Rabat, setting the stage for the new MoU with Rosatom’s subsidiary at the second Russia-Africa summit, held two weeks ago. The agreement could be precedent-setting if nuclear energy is included in the portfolio of solutions to be implemented as part of Morocco’s $40 billion national water strategy for the period 2020-2050. By establishing proof of concept in Morocco, Russia could provide nuclear-powered desalination solutions to water-stressed countries across the MENA region and adjacent areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
MENA’s food-water-nuclear power nexus and Russian technology
Rosatom is experienced in developing desalination complexes to service the cooling needs of the nuclear power plants it constructs around the world, including the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which the company is building on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast. Akkuyu’s four Rosatom-built “water-water” (VVER) reactors will have a collective installed capacity of 4,800 megawatts (MW), capable of supplying about 10% of Turkey’s power demand. At the time of its 2015 groundbreaking ceremonies, the Akkuyu plant was Russia’s first MENA project outside of Iran and an important showpiece for expanding Rosatom’s regional market share. Now, Rosatom is also building a four-reactor VVER plant of the same capacity in Dabaa, Egypt. Moscow and Cairo signed their initial MoU for the construction of the plant in 2015, near the time of Akkuyu’s groundbreaking ceremony. Rosatom will install the initial equipment of the first reactor in Dabaa in the beginning of October 2023.
Through Rosatom’s current activities in the MENA region, Russia is well-positioned to engage the regional governments in developing nuclear-powered desalination to overcome the climate change-driven “trilemma” of the food-water-energy nexus. The increasingly fragile state of food security in the MENA region, manifest in rising food prices and food shortages, is primarily due to the region’s extreme water scarcity, increasingly exacerbated by climate change. Present-day levels of agrifood production across most of the MENA region typically consume 80% or more of the water supply. Even at its current, insufficient level of agrifood output, Egypt’s water deficit is estimated to be 30-35 billion cubic meters, equivalent to 60% of the amount of water the Nile River already contributes to the country’s water supply. Turkey, an important regional agrifood producer, also faces debilitating water scarcity, with 97% of farmers surveyed reporting that they are experiencing diminishing yields due to climate change-related impacts on their farms. Turkey’s increasingly depleting groundwater aquifers have prompted many desperate farmers to drill illegal wells that tap groundwater that is already at a very low level.
Morocco’s trilemma is similarly acute, and perhaps greater that either Egypt’s or Turkey’s, given Rabat’s effort to push more of its citizens into the middle class through a massive expansion of higher value-added agrifood production for export. By 2020, Rabat’s 10-year Plan Maroc Vert (Green Morocco Plan) succeeded in raising the value of the country’s agricultural exports by 117% to roughly $3.5 billion and created 342,000 new jobs. Morocco’s agrifood exports continued to grow to $5.97 billion in 2021 and surpassed $7 billion in 2022. However, as Moroccan agrifood export revenues soar, the sector now accounts for up to 88% of the country’s water consumption. In 2015, Morocco’s water availability was 645 cubic meters per capita, well below the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per capita. Morocco is on the fast track to cross the 500 cubic meter threshold of “extreme water scarcity” by 2050, barring government action.
Rabat’s new 10-year successor plan, the Green Generation 2020-2030, is focused on the resilience and sustainability of the country’s agricultural production, with a substantial reliance on sea water reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination technology. SWRO desalination plants require 10 times the amount of energy to produce the same volume of water as conventional water treatment plants. To satisfy its agricultural and industrial needs while ensuring adequate and affordable supplies of water for human consumption, Morocco will need to make sizeable new investments in low-carbon power generation.
Water and Energy Solutions, which signed the MoU with Rosatom’s desalination subsidiary, maintains a special focus on developing mobile water desalination plants to provide on-demand freshwater in distressed locations. The massive renewable energy and desalination infrastructure, which is intended to provide climate-friendly water for industrial-scale agrifood production and major urban regions, will not cover the entire nation’s water needs. To fill the gaps, Water and Energy Solutions is developing modular units for deployment to remote areas or regions facing acute water scarcity. The compact nature of nuclear power generation could be very well suited to this task, and the availability of domestically produced uranium makes the nuclear option even more attractive for Rabat.
Tapping into Morocco’s uranium abundance
According to geological estimates, Morocco’s phosphate rock contains over three times the 1.9 million tons of uranium found in the world’s largest uranium ore reserves in Australia. The fourth-most-mined material in the world, over 90% of the extracted phosphate is used in synthetic fertilizer manufacturing. Morocco’s state-owned phosphate mining and fertilizer manufacturing giant, the OCP Group (Office Chérifien des Phosphates), has been manufacturing phosphoric acid, an intermediate product in phosphate fertilizer manufacturing from which uranium can be recovered, since the 1980s. In 2020, OCP produced 40.7 million tons of phosphate and manufactured 7.1 million tons of phosphoric acid. In the last few years, OCP has been examining the role that uranium recovery can play in the sustainability of its own operations, engaging the research facilities at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University to valorize the concept for the coming decades.
Despite the renewed interest in uranium as a phosphate byproduct, the technology for recovering uranium from phosphoric acid is well established. During the 1980s, uranium recovery from phosphoric acid accounted for 20% of U.S. uranium production but was discontinued with the bottoming-out of uranium prices during the 1990s. The Belgian-headquartered phosphate firm Prayon, jointly owned by OCP and Wallonie Entreprendre, recovered around 690 tons of uranium from Moroccan phosphate rock between 1975 and 1999.
The general rise in uranium prices has rekindled interest in uranium recovery from phosphoric acid. Using already proven solvent-extraction technologies, uranium costs would range from an estimated $44 to $61 per pound of triuranium octoxide (U3O8; a form of yellowcake and one of the most stable compounds of uranium, commonly used in shipments between mills and refineries). The uranium spot price on June 30, 2023, was $56.23 per pound, up from $40.33, a 39.42% increase year-on-year.
Using conventional processing technology, uranium recovery is within the realm of commercial feasibility. Ion exchange-based recovery processes, which are being tested at commercial scale, could potentially reduce the recovery cost. Australian firm PhosEnergy’s pilot facility in the U.S. has an operating cost in the low $20s per pound of U3O8, according to the company. Commercial-scale direct leaching — the removal of the uranium from the phosphate rock prior to phosphoric acid production — could reduce the recovery cost even further.
An opportunity for a US-Morocco strategic nuclear relationship
The use of renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind power, to solve the food-water-energy trilemma ultimately rests on the ability of technologies to deliver implementable solutions at scale and within a timeframe to meet immediate needs. Mobile desalination units powered by modular nuclear energy generation may provide more readily deployable solutions as the urgency of the food-water crisis in the MENA region accelerates due to climate change.
While Morocco’s focus on mobile water desalination to cope with this contingency has led to its engagement with Russia’s Rosatom, Rabat’s orientation also enjoys a synergy with Washington’s current effort to develop U.S. capabilities in Generation IV nuclear power technology, through the design and production of mobile microreactors. The U.S. government’s program to develop a prototype mobile microreactor is called Project Pele, led by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). The SCO’s 1-5 MW mobile microreactor is expected to undergo test operations in 2024 at the Idaho National Laboratory. A whole-of-government effort involving the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Nuclear Security Administration, Project Pele seeks “to advance energy resilience and reduce carbon emissions” for the U.S. Armed Forces and also serve as “a pathfinder for commercial adoption.”
While the prototype Pele reactor is currently mandated to be demonstrated only within the United States under the safety oversight of the DOE, the Department of Defense will decide at a future date about the transition of the technology and its commercial use in private industry. As the security implications of climate change become increasingly stark, Washington should engage Rabat’s forward-leaning posture in finding solutions to water scarcity. With the nuclear option already part of Morocco’s portfolio of possible solutions for addressing the food-water-energy trilemma, the White House should consider how to engage Rabat as a stakeholder in the diffusion of the United States’ Generation IV mobile nuclear power technology.
Professor Michaël Tanchum is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Economics and Energy Program. He teaches at Universidad de Navarra and is a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES). You can follow him on Twitter @michaeltanchum. The author would like to thank Vicky Andarcia for her research assistance.
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