The UAE's nuclear programme can become a model of a well-run reactor project. And the UAE can play a role in working towards the responsible global development of nuclear power.
UAE's nuclear model favours full transparency
Sometime in 2014, the first reactor for the Braka Nuclear Power Plant will be loaded onto a freighter in the South Korean city of Changwon. By the time it steams to the site 300 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi, the Arab world's first nuclear-power station will be a few dozen months from switching the lights on.
The commissioning will be a benchmark in the UAE's record as a global energy leader. But whether Braka becomes a model for curbing nuclear-weapons development - as its creators hope - or an exception depends on the cooperation of countries represented at the Seoul nuclear summit convening today.
After Japan's Fukushima disaster last year, and with Iranian leaders pursuing a policy of intentional nuclear ambiguity, the global nuclear-energy business needs a clear-cut model of safe, peaceful civilian development. Abu Dhabi can deliver that with the continued support of partners abroad.
When the US and the UAE signed a nuclear cooperation deal in 2009, so began a nuclear partnership that would eventually be dubbed the "gold standard" for nuclear cooperation. Among the most noteworthy aspects of the so-called 123 Agreement was the UAE's decision to give up its right - enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - to enrich and reprocess fuel. There are civilian uses for enrichment and reprocessing, but the materials can also be ingredients of a weapons programme. Iran's enrichment programme is what troubles world leaders today. The UAE's voluntary decision was a goodwill gesture and a counter-narrative.
But the trade-off came with a caveat: if a neighbouring state were to seal better terms with Washington, the UAE could renegotiate. Recent reports that the Obama administration has dropped objections to a Jordanian uranium-enrichment programme have raised questions about the US-UAE agreement. A similar deal may be in the works with Vietnam.
The UAE programme has started well. The country has an independent regulator, an internationally recognised advisory board and a history of transparency. But further challenges will come. South Korea's nuclear programme, the source of much of the UAE's technological know-how, has suffered a recent operational issue, transparency problems and recent allegations of an attempted cover-up of the malfunction. The UAE can avoid these problems with the help of its partners.
Leaders gathered in Seoul must consider the decisions that will support a global nonproliferation regime - open and verifiable, like the UAE's, and not opaque and obstructionist, like Iran's. That should be a goal that almost everyone can support.