The UAE is competing with several neighbours in the race to develop a civilian nuclear power programme by the end of next decade, but all face significant infrastructure and resource challenges that could potentially stall these plans for decades, experts say. The World Nuclear Association lists eight Arab states outside of the GCC that have expressed an interest in developing nuclear power. Jordan took a step closer this week when it signed an agreement with South Korea to co-operate on building a reactor by 2017 - the same schedule put forward by several UAE officials.
The Jordanian government has signed similar agreements with the US, the UK, France and China, and in October it chose Areva, a French firm, to help it develop domestic uranium resources. As a resource-poor country that imports more than 90 per cent of its electricity, Jordan's rationale for developing nuclear power was obvious. Transforming that logic into a working nuclear power programme, however, posed significant challenges, said Steve Thomas, a professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich in London.
"Until an order is actually placed, talk is very cheap," he said, adding that co-operation agreements were "10 a penny". "If they have a nuclear power station in less than 20 years, I'd be astonished." Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco are building or already operate small research reactors and have established plans to develop commercial plants. The most advanced programme is in Turkey, but that remains stalled at the bidding stage. Turkish officials have sought to build a reactor since the 1970s, but plans have fallen through several times due to lack of financing.
Dr Thomas noted that when he first entered the nuclear field in 1979, "Egypt and Turkey were literally said to be within weeks of signing up to build nuclear power plants". Little has changed since then, he said, except the price of a nuclear power station, which has grown to US$7bn to $10bn." The UAE's steady access to sources of funding position it on the shortlist among contenders for developing nuclear power.
"The UAE seems to be making a more serious attempt than anyone," said Ian Hore-Lacy, the director of public communications for the World Nuclear Association. But Dr Thomas is sceptical that any of the projects in the region will be operational by 2020, including efforts in the Gulf. Jordan, he said, lacked the infrastructure, expertise and financing to develop a nuclear programme so quickly. Within the wider region, Turkey and the UAE had the best chance of developing nuclear power, but both faced significant challenges in meeting their timing targets, he said.
"Turkey has much more infrastructure," he said. "The continuing problem is the financing." The UAE had the money to fund a programme, he said, but would face difficulties in developing infrastructure and expertise. "From the finance point of view, the UAE has the best chance," he said, but would face hurdles if it selected a firm to build the plant without first developing a modern regulatory system.
"They don't even have a safety regulatory system," he said. "You can't just start the programme without having any critical process of your own." The Government had indicated it would rely initially on foreign firms to help it build and operate a fleet of nuclear reactors. But without an aggressive watchdog, he said, the country would be unable to push foreign firms to be transparent enough to provide the best work possible.
In a policy paper earlier this year, the Government pledged to pursue a peaceful, civilian atomic energy programme with maximum safeguards, transparency and regulatory oversight. Officials have said they planned to pick a firm to supply a reactor design next year. email@example.com