France and Russia are among the nations vying for a lucrative 15-year deal to supply nuclear fuel to the UAE.
Emirates Nuclear Energy Cooperation (Enec), the company building Abu Dhabi's first nuclear plant, opened bids last month for a "substantial" contract for the uranium to power the reactors due to be built 300km west of the capital.
The UAE is in talks with nations to have used nuclear fuel returned, an arrangement known as "fuel leasing". This would save the UAE the headache of having to store radioactive waste. France and Russia are the only countries that have agreements to keep other nations' spent fuel.
"The UAE would favour an arrangement where spent fuel is taken back after use," Hamad Al Kaabi, the UAE's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday.
"Some other countries have indicated interest, but they still have to develop their capabilities. There are challenges related to internal legal matters in some of these countries regarding the return of foreign spent fuel."
The question of long-term storage of nuclear waste is still a problem worldwide. The issue has become highly topical since the partial meltdown at three reactors and subsequent radiation contamination from spent-fuel ponds triggered by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March.
The matter becomes of increasing importance to the UAE with the approach of a 2017 deadline to bring the first reactor online, making the country the first nation in the Arab world with nuclear power.
That timetable hinges on approval from the Emirates' independent nuclear regulator, which is reviewing the plans.
Enec plans to store the first batches of used fuel, in ponds of cooling water for five to 20 years. The first four and a half years worth of supply are to be provided by the South Korean consortium that won the original US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) plant contract. Then Enec will encase the radioactive material in thick concrete barrels that will be kept in the open, a temporary solution used by the US and other nations.
Enec is aiming to sign the 15-year supply contracts in the first quarter of next year and could award bids to more than one country, said Fahad Al Qahtani, the acting director for external affairs and communications at Enec.
The US, the UK, Australia and Japan - along with France and South Korea - are the nations that have signed nuclear cooperation agreements with the UAE that will provide the legal foundation for knowledge transfer or supply sales.
Russia, which has already targeted developing countries entering the nuclear industry such as Jordan and Vietnam, is in talks with the Emirates over such an agreement, said Mr Al Kaabi.
France is also eager to line up fresh nuclear deals after losing the 2009 bid to build Abu Dhabi's plant, a loss that sparked an independent report re-examining French nuclear competitiveness.
The country's state nuclear energy company Areva is well positioned to supply the UAE since it can take the spent fuel back, recycle most of it and store the remainder on French soil.
"There's plenty of room, it seems, for dozens of French firms," Pierre Lellouche, the French foreign trade minister, said regarding nuclear contracts in the UAE during a recent visit to Abu Dhabi.
Australia, which has 40 per cent of the world's known uranium reserves, has been most vocal about its desire to make the UAE its customer.
It is already the world's third top supplier of uranium ore and has successfully sold to China, the estimated market for about two-thirds of the new reactors planned over the next 20 years.
Australia's foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, visited Abu Dhabi in March to announce his country's hopes for a bilateral uranium trade agreement, although he stipulated Australia would require potential partners to maintain strict control over nuclear material.
"A bilateral safeguards agreement with Australia is a further strict non-proliferation condition that Australia requires for supplying uranium," he said at the time.
The two biggest suppliers of uranium, Canada and Kazakhstan, have yet to sign nuclear cooperation agreements with the UAE.