x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Supplying nuclear power to the Middle East - with a safety switch

Competition between western and Russian nuclear exporters for new market opportunities in the Middle East does not have to repeat the mistakes of the Cold War.


Competition between western and Russian nuclear exporters for new market opportunities in the Middle East does not have to repeat the mistakes of the Cold War. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Washington and Moscow rashly promoted civil nuclear projects around the world as one inducement in their ideological competition for friends and influence. Many of the projects brought affordable energy to needful populations, but often with too little attention to environmental and proliferation risks.

Under the guise of "Atoms for Peace", the US exported research reactors, along with uranium fuel, to more than 40 countries. Most of these reactors used highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel, which was weapons-usable. The Soviet Union had a similar export programme, as did China, on a smaller scale. Separate from the proliferation risk posed by the HEU fuel, irradiation produces plutonium that, if separated from the rest of a reactor's spent fuel, can also be used for nuclear weapons. In the '60s and '70s, the USSR supplied reactors and other nuclear technology to North Korea, which Pyongyang then used to produce plutonium for a weapons programme.

In 1957, France signed a secret deal with Israel to supply an unsafeguarded reactor and a plutonium reprocessing plant at Dimona that produced the fissile material for Israel's nuclear weapons. Also in the 1950s, Canada supplied a research reactor to India that became the source of the plutonium used in the 1974 Indian nuclear test. Following such a clear demonstration of the proliferation danger, since 1978 the US has been repatriating the HEU and converting the research reactors to run on low-enriched uranium. Washington has been helping Moscow to do the same. The two nations are also co-operating with other nuclear suppliers in adopting and adhering to a strict set of guidelines covering their sales so as to prevent further proliferation risk. The Nuclear Supplier Group guidelines were undermined, however, by the exception recently granted to India.

Meanwhile, 46 countries are known to still possess weapons-usable uranium. While most of the facilities are well guarded, some may still be susceptible to sabotage or theft inspired by al Qa'eda or other terrorist groups that aspire to obtaining the ultimate weapon. Today there are emerging signs of a new form of East-West competition in the nuclear arena. Russia is helping Venezuela to build its first nuclear reactor, in a deal expected to be sealed when Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, visits Caracas next week. Russia has also been promoting nuclear energy co-operation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other nations in the Middle East.

With enthusiastic support from their governments, French and American nuclear power companies are also aggressively promoting their wares in the region, as are South Korean and Canadian exporters. For Paris and Washington, nuclear co-operation with countries in the Middle East is motivated by reasons that are more political than commercial. Promoting nuclear co-operation sends a strong message that state of the art western technology is available to nations that adhere to non-proliferation standards.

The contrast with Iran is stark. The Iranian people might ask their leaders why they pursue policies that lead to increasing isolation and economic sanctions while their neighbours can benefit from peaceful nuclear co-operation with all the exporting nations of the world. Offers of nuclear co-operation prove that concerns about Iran's nuclear programme are not based on any desire to keep modern nuclear technology from Muslim nations. Nobody denies Iran's right to nuclear energy. But other nations are rightfully concerned about Iran's lack of transparency, the military connections to its nuclear programme and its determined pursuit of facilities that Iran does not need for energy production but that would give it a route to nuclear weapons.

Several other states in the Middle East are moving ahead on their own to create the right conditions for nuclear-energy development. Statements this year by the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, making clear they have no interest in technology that can be used for nuclear weapons and agreeing to full transparency, will hasten nuclear energy development and could set an important regional precedent. The UAE made the commitment in its nuclear energy white paper, published in April 2008. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia did so in nuclear co-operation agreements with the US, in March and May respectively.

Moscow and Paris would do well to insist quietly that any nation to whom they sell nuclear power should follow these examples. It would help to produce a virtuous cycle of transparency, trust and technology harnessed for sustainable development. It also makes economic sense. Enrichment and reprocessing facilities are too expensive for those countries new to the nuclear energy field and unable to take advantage of economies of scale. Countries whose primary motivation for seeking nuclear power is energy security - rather than strategic security or national pride - should concentrate on the technologies really needed for this purpose. Their focus should be on reactors, nuclear safety and waste disposal. If they are concerned about fuel supply, states can consider joining one of the many multilateral mechanisms that have been proposed to guarantee access to enriched uranium fuel.

One example of such a mechanism is a suggestion made public by the Gulf Co-operation Council last year for an extra-regional enrichment centre, perhaps in Switzerland, to supply enriched uranium fuel to all the states of the Gulf. The GCC suggestion is worth serious consideration. It would offer a face-saving way for Iran to forego enrichment as part of a voluntary regional arrangement. By doing so, Iran would at the same time meet its obligation to respect UN mandates and provide the best means of assuring the world that its nuclear programme was not intended for weapons purposes. The GCC plan would also be a practical step towards a zone in the wider Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. But Iran appears to be more interested in the dual-use technology than the fuel.

Mark Fitzpatrick is the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the editor of Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran.