Civilian Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East

21st August 2020

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has launched operations at its Barakah plant on the Gulf Coast just east of Qatar.1 Nuclear fission has been achieved using the help of South Korean technology. The state had raised international security concerns during March by loading fuel rods into the first of four reactors, making it the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant. The construction is years over budget and has been hampered by building problems and a lack of trained personnel. Concerns range from possible environmental disasters in an ecologically diverse part of the planet, theft of radioactive materials, and a nuclear arms race between regional rivals; in what is a traditionally geopolitically unstable area.2

The UAE has tried to garner favour with the international community by signing up to enhanced non-proliferation protocols and secured the 123 Agreement with the US, that allows for bilateral sharing of civilian nuclear components, materials and know-how. They have also agreed not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, however, this raises its own concerns as it means it will have to import its uranium from abroad, presenting its own transport security risks.3 In contrast, Iran has not joined any international conventions and is the only country with a major nuclear program that has not joined the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

The UAE is legitimately looking to replace its reliance on energy produced from oil and the four reactors planned will provide twenty-five per cent of the UAE’s energy needs when fully operational. However, experts have pointed out there are other more efficient, renewable alternatives. Given the expense and security concerns over the construction of nuclear power plants, it seems illogical to go down this route and begs the question as to what other motives they could have. Experts have suggested a civilian nuclear reactor is like having a pre-deployed nuclear weapon for the enemy, only with a much larger level of radioactivity. The accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine released four hundred times the radioactive material into the planet’s atmosphere as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.4

Saudi Arabia is also constructing its first nuclear research reactor at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. Like the UAE they have insisted their nuclear ambitions do not extend further than civilian energy projects but Riyadh has not officially said it will never develop nuclear weapons. While both countries have signed the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons, which have comprehensive safeguards, Saudi Arabia has not signed up to the Additional Protocol that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit on short notice. Saudi Arabia’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has also publicly declared his intention to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran gets them first.

Nuclear experts are very concerned over the lack of transparency in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE over their pushing ahead with nuclear power. The UAE’s nuclear regulatory body took a year to disclose cracks found in its containment units.5 Nuclear experts are also very concerned over other safety levels at the Barakah site saying that it has not been built to withstand missile attack and that nuclear workers had not been trained to the required level.

Security of nuclear sites in the Gulf is a very real problem as there is significant regional unrest. The current cold-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has led to a number of proxy wars in the area. Qatar is currently being subject to an air, land and sea blockade, by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, for supporting “terrorism” and having too close a link with Iran.6

Concerningly, a fire was reported to have occurred at a key Iranian nuclear facility on Thursday 30th July causing “significant damage”.7 The fire is reported to have damaged a centrifuge assembly workshop at the Natanz enrichment site and some Iranian officials have blamed possible cyber-sabotage. Centrifuges are needed to produce enriched uranium that can be used to make reactor fuel but are also used to produce nuclear weapons.  Iran has insisted its nuclear programme is peaceful and deny they are seeking to manufacture nuclear weapons. Natanz is Iran’s largest nuclear facility and the fire will come as a blow to their production targets, however, they have now stated that they will build a bigger site with better technology.

A deal in 2015 saw Iran agree to only produce low-enriched uranium of three to four per cent concentration, far below the level needed to manufacture weapons. However, Iran has been going back on commitments since US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear accord and reinstate crippling economic sanctions.8 Currently, the United States has failed to extend the United Nations arms embargo on Iran due to expire in mid-October provoking fears over what will happen next. The only country to support them were the Dominican Republic, with the United Kingdom, France and Germany abstaining. Russia and China strongly opposed the motion. Iran has stated that they will react strongly if the arms embargo was extended.9

Nuclear power is argued by some to be a far more environmentally friendly form of energy than traditional alternatives such as oil, gas, and coal. In order to meet climate change emissions targets countries need to find ways of producing energy that does not release so much CO2. Even the United Kingdom has been struggling to balance its own energy needs with cost-effective ‘green’ solutions.10 Solar power now seems to offer a large scale viable alternative to oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power. Technology has increased significantly over the last ten years to the point where the use of solar technology is likely to be far more cost-effective in the UAE, somewhere with high light levels, than nuclear power. Analysts say that between 2009 and 2019 the cost of solar photovoltaic fell by eighty-nine per cent and wind power fell forty-three per cent compared to an increase of twenty-six per cent in nuclear. This has now put the price of once unviable renewables far below the price for nuclear.11

A key concern with nuclear is that if an accident did happen the effects are catastrophic. If a nuclear leak occurred in the Gulf then it would likely stay in the water as it is shallow and warm, unlike the Fukushima blast in Japan in 2011, where the cold, deep waters of the Pacific were able to help disperse the radiation.12 Contaminated material also presents a real problem as radioactive material is very difficult to store and lasts for a very long time. It needs to be done somewhere it will not affect people, the environment, or present a security risk.

Prestige may be one of the overarching factors in building a nuclear reactor given the lack of economic benefit. Technological advancement and scientific progress go a long way to instilling national pride.13 To be the first fully functioning Arabic nuclear facility carries political clout and one-upmanship but this could well instigate a civilian nuclear race and reignite Iran’s ‘need’ for nuclear energy. Also, officials have pointed out that once a nuclear project is underway it is very hard to stop. The years of planning, construction, job creation and investment mean that it is a venture that requires a long-term commitment. Indeed, the level of investment needed in nuclear power requires massive state subsidies.

Once energy-rich countries such as Egypt and the UAE held huge reserves of oil and natural gas, but are now becomingly increasingly energy-poor due to its commitments to supply energy abroad. As a result, the UAE is in the confusing position of importing natural gas from Qatar even though it has been part of an embargo on the country. Qatar has so far not looked at cutting off supply in retaliation.

Experts think it unlikely that the UAE would be looking to make nuclear weapons given the cost of buying enriched uranium is cheaper on the international market than it is to make it domestically. Also that “nuclear weapons would be useless at combating a diffuse ideological threat” in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood’s pan-regional influence and current threat across the region.14 However, the arrival of nuclear power in the Middle East looks to increase tension and instability to an already complicated and unpredictable area. The likelihood of an attack on either the site in Barakah or on nuclear waste in transport seems far too risky. The UAE’s recent “normalising” of relations with Israel has infuriated Iran and is bound to instigate some form of retaliation, either state-sponsored or not. Rather than look to de-escalate tensions and provide a beacon for new renewable technology they seem to have instead created more of a target for extremism.