x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Region's rivalries could delay nuclear programme

The quest to establish a civilian nuclear programme in 10 years will face significant hurdles.

Geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East and a skills shortage in the UAE will prove significant challenges in the quest to establish a civilian nuclear programme in 10 years, a British nuclear industry expert warned yesterday. With Iran in pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel already in possession of them, development of nuclear energy in the Gulf could exacerbate an emerging regional arms race, said John Large, a nuclear engineer who heads a consultancy in Britain that is often critical of the nuclear industry.

At least 10 Arab nations have declared an interest in developing nuclear energy, and the UAE is hoping to become the first, bringing an atomic power station on stream in 2017. "The danger lies in the suspicion and mistrust that is so pervasive in this sensitive region," Mr Large told a conference at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. The Gulf's move to develop nuclear power "has the potential for tipping the regional situation into instability".

Although much of the international community has welcomed the country's plan to build nuclear power plants, a new conservative government in Israel could feel threatened enough by the UAE's move, coming on top of Iran's programme, to openly declare Israel a nuclear power ready to develop new weapons, he said. The UAE has published a policy document outlining its intentions to develop a peaceful, civilian atomic energy programme, with the full support of the international community, and adhere to maximum safeguards against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As well as an economic necessity, officials have argued that it could be transformative for national industry and education, providing an incentive to develop high technology, advanced scientific research and thousands of skilled jobs. Mr Large said pragmatic questions about nuclear energy cound not, in practice, be divorced from concerns about the development of weapons and the fact that a successful nuclear power industry represents a point of national pride.

In the case of the UAE, economic reasons for nuclear development "represent only a few jigsaw pieces of a much bigger picture", he said. The Government has said it wants to build a group of light-water reactors to plug a looming gap between demand for power and the capacity of gas-fired power stations to deliver it. In a speech to the same conference on Monday, Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said the country would build up to 15,000 megawatts of nuclear generating capacity by 2020, and become a template for development of nuclear power in GCC countries.

According to the policy outlined earlier this year, the country will not produce enriched uranium, the ingredient used in nuclear weapons, and will pursue a civilian power programme transparently with the aid of established nuclear powers. But Mr Large said no country had created a sophisticated nuclear programme without also possessing some degree of expertise in building nuclear weapons. At a certain level, the skills and materials needed to build an advanced nuclear reactor and an atomic weapons coincided, he said.

"Not only is nuclear technology dual-capable, the technicians operating it also become dual-capable," he said. He predicted it would take decades before the UAE developed skilled Emirati technicians and until then the country would rely heavily on the skills of foreigners. Citing the case of Britain, which took more than 20 years to develop a regulatory system, he said he doubted the country could develop the legal and technical expertise to have a safe nuclear industry operative within a decade.

A particular, a concern was that the country could become too dependent on foreigners, with too little knowledge transfer taking place, he warned. Britain relied on the US for help in setting up its own nuclear programme, and depends heavily on US equipment and personnel for both its civilian and military programmes. cstanton@thenational.ae