WASHINGTON // The nuclear sharing agreement between the UAE and the United States entered into force yesterday as representatives from both countries exchanged diplomatic notes at the US state department. Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador in Washington, and Ellen Tauscher, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, took part in a ceremony that takes the Emirates a step closer to becoming the first Arab nation to harness nuclear power.
The ceremony inside the State Department's Treaty Room marked the final procedural hurdle in a deal-making process that started more than two years ago and has spanned two presidential administrations in the US. "This agreement supports a new global gold standard for the development of peaceful, civilian nuclear energy, by countries that need nuclear energy for their economic development," Mr al Otaiba said. "The UAE nuclear energy programme is peaceful-by-design, developed with international agencies and other responsible governments, including the United States."
UAE leaders have said they need nuclear power to stave off a looming energy shortage caused by rising demand. The Emirates plans to build a fleet of nuclear reactors, making the first one operational by 2017. Similar deals have been signed with France, Japan and South Korea and a memorandum of understanding with the United Kingdom. The agreement with the US, which has a term of 30 years, opens the door for the transfer of material, equipment and components for nuclear research and nuclear power production. It also sets strict non-proliferation guidelines and grants international inspectors wide access to the Emirates, including to sites outside of those declared by the government.
The UAE agreed to a ban on sensitive nuclear facilities capable of enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium. "The UAE has made a commitment not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel. This means the UAE will not house these sensitive technologies. These commitments are enshrined in the agreement - the first time the United States has included them in a bilateral civilian nuclear agreement. We have also signed the IAEA's Additional Protocol, which ensures the most stringent inspections regime. We made these commitments to demonstrate our peaceful goals and to remove any ambiguity about our intentions. The UAE model will become even more important as the world grapples with how to enforce and strengthen the nonproliferation regime," Mr al Otaiba said, according to the Government's official news agency WAM. The Obama administration and US legislators have praised the deal as a model for future civilian nuclear accords. "The UAE has made unique commitments here," said Alex Burkart, the deputy director of the state department's office of nuclear energy, safety and security. The accord is a "positive example, one we obviously support, one we look to as a significant achievement and perhaps as a way forward for the region."
The bilateral agreement was initially signed on January 15 by Condoleezza Rice, then the US secretary of state, and the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. But it was reopened for negotiation by the Obama administration, which reviewed the agreement for five months. During its assessment, the new administration took steps to strengthen provisions banning enrichment and reprocessing, making them "legally binding," Mr Burkart said. He added that the White House inherited the accord as it was still establishing its policies on nuclear co-operation. "The administration wanted to put its stamp on what it was doing," he said.
In May, during a speech in Prague, Mr Obama outlined his policy on nuclear co-operation for the first time, saying nuclear energy "must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons". He also cited nuclear power as a clean alternative to fossil fuels and important way to combat climate change. Later that month, he submitted the UAE-US accord to Congress for a mandatory 90-day review.
Legislators, for the most part, praised the accord and held it up as a sharp contrast to Iran's secretive atomic programme, which the US believes is designed to develop nuclear weapons. Congress took no action to block the agreement before the 90-day review expired in October. Some legislators, however, opposed the deal, citing concerns that sensitive materials and technology would ultimately end up in Iran. Critics worried that the UAE's recently strengthened export control laws were not being fully implemented.
Thursday's ceremony comes a day after the US energy department announced that its nuclear agency will work with the UAE's Ministry of Interior to "detect, deter, and interdict illicit smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive material". Under a new co-operative agreement, formalised last week, the US will work with the UAE to install radiation sensors at the ports of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and train UAE officials to use the equipment.
Mr Burkart said the timing of the ports initiative and the exchange of diplomatic notes was "entirely coincidental", but called it a "positive development that demonstrates the willingness of the UAE to take steps in non-proliferation and counter-proliferation efforts in the region". Earlier this month, the Government received final bids from firms hoping to build nuclear power plants in Abu Dhabi. A decision is expected in the coming weeks. US officials estimate the nuclear deal could create tens of thousands of jobs for US citizens. "This agreement enhances the already deep strategic relationship between the UAE and the United States," Mr al Otaiba said. "We look forward to expanding our partnerships with a range of US companies, experts and government officials which represent the highest standards of safety, security, transparency and non-proliferation".