The UAE has won plaudits for its civilian nuclear-energy programme from international nuclear experts and politicians gathered in the capital yesterday. "We insist on safety and security first, because, after all, we drink from this Gulf," said Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, addressing a conference hosted by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. "The programme is designed as a template and standard for our area, which is in danger of seeing proliferation without the necessary safeguards."
The Government is in the final stages of evaluating a proposal to build a fleet of nuclear reactors to provide up to 15,000 megawatts of power by 2020, he said. International speakers at the conference unanimously agreed that nuclear power development brings a risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. But they said the UAE's programme was setting an example for the rest of the Middle East and could provide a foundation for regional co-operation in areas ranging from nuclear regulation and inspection to electricity sharing and the training of staff.
"We face a growing risk of nuclear weapons proliferation as nuclear reactors become a growing source of power. That is why the UAE programme is so important. A Middle East free of nuclear weapons is critical," said David Miliband, the British foreign secretary. Earlier this year, the UAE signed co-operation agreements with France, Britain and the US, after announcing its intention to join the nuclear power club. It is considering signing similar agreements with Japan and South Korea, according to Hamad Ali al Ka'abi, the nation's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Hans Blix, the chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, embraced the ambitions of the UAE and other Middle-Eastern oil producers to build nuclear reactors to supply their growing power needs. "I am fully in favour of oil-rich countries having nuclear reactors," Dr Blix said. "Long-term, I am more scared about global warming than I am about weapons of mass destruction." "For the Gulf, the argument seems to be accepted that nuclear energy should be used to generate power, freeing oil and gas for export" he added.
Nuclear power, which converts the energy locked in the nuclei of uranium atoms into electricity, does not generate carbon dioxide as a waste product, unlike power generation from burning fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. Arguing that the world's use of energy was bound to increase as people strive for better standards of living, Dr Blix said improving energy efficiency was his first choice for stabilising carbon emissions, with nuclear development second. Renewable energy would play only a limited role because of the cost and difficulty of harvesting "dispersed" energy such as wind and sunlight, he predicted.
But nuclear development has a long lead time, so we had "better start now", he said. International nuclear-power firms, backed by their home countries' governments, have been jockeying to sell their reactors to the UAE. The Government expected to settle on a reactor design next year, Mr Ka'abi said. "We have determined that nuclear energy is an option the UAE cannot afford to ignore," he said. Mr Ka'abi said it was difficult to anticipate how much a plant would cost, noting that he had seen estimates ranging from US$1,500 (Dh5,509) to $4,500 per kilowatt. That compares with less than $1,000 per kilowatt hour for a gas-fired power station. But the reason the UAE is seeking to build nuclear reactors is that it has decided it will not have sufficient gas to supply a projected 40,000 megawatts of electricity demand in 2020.
If the UAE elects to take the nuclear route, the costs of setting up the infrastructure and regulatory framework would necessitate building more than one plant, according to Adnan Shihab-Eldin, a former IAEA director who also serves as acting secretary general of Opec in 2005. "Nuclear power is not something for which you build one today and do not build one tomorrow." Mr Blix predicted the greatest challenge to the country's nuclear programme would be a shortage of skilled personnel to run the plant and staff the regulatory agency. He said it was essential that the UAE start training staff now.