April 04, 2008

Middle East atomic moves

The UAE and Egypt make significant moves to develop a nuclear capacity, as Israel drops reactor plans, Dominic Moran reports for ISN Security Watch.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (04/04/08)

A period of hiatus following a wave of Arab nuclear announcements appears to have ended with the signing of a Franco-UAE atomic pact, as Egypt prepares to launch a tender for the country's first nuclear energy plant.

There are strong indications that the UAE deal could constitute the first step in a developing trend of atomic development and competition promoted both by pressing energy needs and regional instability.

Dr Emily Landau from Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies told ISN Security Watch that Arab nuclear plans were motivated, in part, by Iranian atomic development. "Otherwise it would be difficult to explain this surge of interest that came out at a certain point of time when the Iranian nuclear program seemed to be getting very serious," she said.

Referring to the Gulf, London-based Chatham House's Dr Valerie Marcel told ISN Security Watch, "They have all these plans to develop domestic [electricity supply] because populations are expanding and also industrial usage is expanding and they have fewer and fewer options for importing gas. So turning to nuclear is a way to diversify their energy mix."

Raising the stakes
In the first indication that repeated government assertions regarding plans for an Egyptian nuclear energy program could be about to bear fruit, a tender is expected to be held later this year for the construction of the country's first energy reactor.

Egypt penned a nuclear cooperation deal with Russia last week raising the stakes in the tendering process. The reactor is likely to be situated at al-Dabaa, west of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.

"I think the movement in Egypt and also other countries is to explore areas of cooperation, not just with Russia but also with China, Europe and the United States," Dr Mohamed Kadri Said from the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo told ISN Security Watch.

Referring to last week's deal, Landau said: "I think they just signed some sort of understanding in this regard; they haven't signed a concrete deal. Mubarak made some statements afterwards where he tried to downplay it a little bit and not make it seem that they are going full steam ahead with Russia for their program."

Egypt has the most significant nuclear research development track record of any Arab state, operating two research reactors, and signed several energy reactor deals in the past, all of which came to naught.

In late 2006, the Egyptian Electricity and Energy Ministry announced plans for a three-to-four reactor program to be completed by 2027, with the first plant scheduled to be in operation within 10 years, ending a freeze on atomic energy plans in place since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Egypt clarified in December that it was unwilling to commit to a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Additional Protocol mandating invasive probes by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - which may have an impact on US and European states' readiness to supply the mooted reactor program with nuclear fuel and sensitive technologies.

"Of course they are talking about nuclear energy programs […] but everyone knows that the way to nuclear weapons in the world of the NPT is through nuclear energy programs," Landau said.

The decision to renew the Egyptian reactor program, while presented as a response to pressing electricity generation needs, appeared motivated primarily by developments in the Iranian nuclear program.

Mubarak has specifically related nuclear development to wider regional strategic issues, warning recently that the Gaza crisis had brought Iran onto the Egyptian border. Egypt's atomic plans appear designed both as a warning and as a pragmatic initial step in developing a significant nuclear capacity ahead of the potential emergence of an Iranian atomic weapons capacity.

According to Said, "Egyptian-Iranian relations are not healthy. But at the same time the Egyptian government received some officials from Iran, just to listen to them. But I didn't see any positive translation of that on the ground."

Significant obstacles remain. The new reactor - which officials estimate will cost US$1.5-US$2 billion - will need significant underwriting from the government of the state whose nuclear industry wins the primary fabrication contract.

Informed Egyptian officials tell ISN Security Watch that the US and other western countries will have the inside running for any reactor deal.

During his highly publicized visit to Egypt in December, French President Nicholas Sarkozy indicated that France was willing to "collaborate with Egypt in nuclear energy for civilian use if Egypt wishes." The US has made a similar initial pledge of assistance and, rather muted, support for Egyptian right to atomic development. However, neither country has indicated a willingness to find the cash for the Egyptian reactor program.

Said believes that "Egypt is more than 20 years behind" countries such as India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel with regard to nuclear development, and faces a number of challenges. One is to form "a community of technicians and scientists" in a global environment that is not as welcoming as in the past, while a second is dealing with the environmental impact of reactors, he said, citing fears of potential accidents.

Shelved plan
Israel is keeping a wary eye on the Egyptian program, eschewing an official response as nuclear officials make vague noises concerning the potential for future regional atomic development cooperation.

ISN Security Watch has learned from official sources that Israel will not be pushing ahead with floated plans for a 1,000MW energy reactor in the short term.

Plans for a nuclear plant at Shivta in southern Israel had been floated repeatedly by interested parties in recurrent governments and the Israel Electrical Company (IEC), but appeared to gain traction in February 2007 with revelations of Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) support.

Israel has a significant history of nuclear research and development, conducted with the active support of France and the US, and is believed to have an atomic weapons capacity built, in part, on development work at the secretive Dimona reactor.

The IAEC signaled recently that a decision had been made to shut down the program's second reactor open at Nahal Soreq. The 5MW reactor, which was subject to IAEA safeguards, will be replaced by an advanced particle accelerator.

Security blanket
The Israeli media has paid little attention to domestic nuclear development, with existing, sharply delimited discourses subsumed under the mantle of national security. Previous moves to lift the lid on Dimona have come from the leftist Hadash party and two NGOs, but efforts to bring the nuclear issue onto the national agenda are still in their infancy.

Israeli Greenpeace disarmament campaigner Sharon Dolev told ISN Security Watch, "There is no discussion of nuclear issues: health impacts, international debates, disarmament issues. Nothing is in the Israeli discourse."

"We don't talk about how to close the reactor in Nahal Soreq and we are not talking about accidents that we know happened in both reactors, or the discharging of radioactive waste and the way it is handled, and this is irresponsible," she said.

Israeli opponents of nuclear development have been chary to back international calls for Israel to sign on to the NPT for fear that an open acknowledgement of the country's nuclear weapons capacity could promote a wave of regional nuclear development, greatly raising the chances of an atomic arms race.

On 8 March, Arab League foreign ministers released a statement sharply at odds with the established Arab position on Israeli nuclear development, warning that Arab states would immediately withdraw from the NPT if Israel ended its long-term policy of ambiguity through admitting it had atomic weapons.

While unsure of the statement's provenance, Landau said it appeared to be made "in the context of the whole dynamic with regard to Iran."

"To say that if Israel admits it has nuclear weapons they would withdraw from the NPT is saying to Israel, 'Don't say anything on your nuclear policy. Keep that whole issue quiet and then Arab states will not be forced to react.'

"With the Arab League states we can see that it is not even in our interests to talk about ambiguity. But that shouldn't stop us from debating whether Israel should or shouldn't have nuclear weapons," Dolev said.

Reactor deal
With tensions rising in the Gulf, the state with the closest business and cultural ties to Iran, the UAE, now appears willing to pre-empt a final decision on a proposed joint atomic energy program with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

On 15 January, the emir of Abu Dhabi, UAE President Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sarkozy signed two deals governing military and nuclear cooperation. Under the auspices of the atomic pact, the UAE and France will create a high-level joint committee charged with establishing the basis for civilian UAE nuclear development.

The signing came after Abu Dhabi secured a US$8.8 billion deal with a French consortium, incorporating energy conglomerates Total, Areva and Suez, for the construction of two reactors which will be utilized in desalination and electricity generation.

With other Gulf states, the UAE is seeking to diversify its economy as it looks ahead to the end of oil production. In January, Abu Dhabi also announced ambitious plans for the world's first carbon-neutral city - plans that appear designed with the mooted reactor program in mind.

"It seems to be a serious MOU [memorandum of understanding]. Initially I had treated it a little lightly, before they signed the deal," Marcel said. "I didn't really expect that they would go ahead with such an expensive and long-term [proposition] […] "It seems like the political will is quite strong in the UAE now for this. So I would expect it to go ahead."

Unlike Egypt, the UAE has the economic wherewithal to fund turn-key nuclear projects, but questions have been raised questions concerning the security of transferred technologies.

Landau noted that there was a concern that Dubai port was being used as a conduit for the onward transfer of goods to Iran. "US products it seems are reaching Iran through Dubai […] that is not the kind of thing that you want in a state that is developing nuclear technology."

Marcel differs: "I think that the UAE has given very clear commitments about transparency and managing concerns of the international community about the development of civil nuclear energy."

The path to a future UAE or GCC reactor program remains fraught with obstacles. In particular, the capacity of the long-moribund nuclear industry to cope with standing contracts is in serious doubt. The French nuclear industry is struggling to cope with the domestic and global decline of related training and educational programs that, with the sullied image of atomic development, has contributed to a drastic shortage of qualified workers.

"They [France] are pretty serious about this deal with the UAE but we are probably not talking about something that will materialize in the short term," Landau said.

Referring to the proposed UAE reactor program, Marcel said, "I think it is likely to legitimize Iran's claim that it is pursuing nuclear development for domestic energy use […] though it does give the UAE a bargaining chip in its efforts to import gas from Iran," she said.

"The Emirates are looking for a civil application and I think that the Iranians will say to them, 'We can help you.' Until now, I didn't measure any reaction from the Iranians because I think maybe they will be happier if all countries in the region will go in this direction," Said said.

"But I don't know what will happen in the future because if these activities go beyond civilian applications I think the problems will really start," he said.

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

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