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International relations

UAE's nuclear plant fuels fears of Middle East arms race

World's largest reactor seen as a threat to stability in highly charged region

The UAE's Barakah nuclear facility will likely push other Arab nations to invest more in their own nuclear ambitions. (Photo courtesy of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation)

DUBAI -- The United Arab Emirates will soon become the newest player on the nuclear stage as it prepares to open the Arab world's first nuclear power plant.

State-run Korea Electric Power Corporation of South Korea is finishing work on four nuclear reactors in the Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi. Known as Barakah and owned by Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, the plant is scheduled to go online later this month with a capacity of 5.6 gigawatts.

Barakah is likely to fuel fears in the already tense region, given the uncertainty over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, and Israel's lack of transparency over its nuclear program. Experts warn about more nuclear plants, increased uranium enrichment, and a possible nuclear arms race in what is arguably the most volatile region in the world.

Though it seems strange that a country so rich in oil and sunshine would need a nuclear power plant, the UAE has its reasons, even if nuclear power has fallen out a favor since a 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.

"Sunshine in the UAE is only useful for solar [power] generation until around 3 p.m.," said Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation CEO Mohamed Al Hammadi in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. In addition, the more the country relies on nuclear power for electricity, the more oil there is for export.

But the UAE's neighbors are far from comfortable with the new plant.

Barakah will be the Arab world's first nuclear project. (Photo courtesy of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation)

Qatar expressed concern in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, stating that an accidental discharge of radioactive material from Barakah could reach the capital of Doha in under 13 hours.

There are also concerns that the facility could be attacked. Paul Dorfman, researcher at University College London, told Nikkei that the risk of a missile attack on a nuclear facility is not to be discounted. Yemeni rebels claimed responsibility for just such an attack that targeted Barakah while still under construction in 2017.

The UAE brushed off these concerns, stating that its air defense system is capable of intercepting any threat. Moreover, Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, told Nikkei that "all nuclear installations have strong containments that can withstand a missile attack."

As for worries that UAE's nuclear know-how could be put to military use, Hamad Al Kaabi, UAE Permanent Representative to the IAEA, tired to allay critics. "The UAE has no plans for enrichment, nor does the UAE have any nuclear military agenda," he told Nikkei. "The UAE nuclear program is peaceful by design."

Blix supported these assurances, telling Nikkei, "The UAE has taken all the necessary defense and safety precautions."

Still, a nuclear arms race has alarmed many. Dorfman said that Saudi Arabia may follow UAE's lead in the field. "Saudi Arabia is seriously considering a nuclear weapons option and a move toward enrichment," he said.

Saudi ruler Mohammed Bin Salman has said as much. In a March 2018 interview with American broadcaster CBS, the strongman told a television audience: "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb. But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."

Egypt and Jordan have also jumped on board the nuclear bandwagon. Egypt is set to build four nuclear reactors this year in collaboration with Russia in the El Dabaa region west of Cairo. Lawmaker Ahmed al Tantawi is wary of his country's nuclear program, stating that Egypt already has a surplus of electricity.

Jordan's nuclear program, however, faces problems such as financing and how to mitigate potential terrorist attacks. There is also a shortage of water needed to cool reactors, as it is one of the world's most arid countries.

Iran's nuclear ambitions are the most alarming. The country already has one nuclear power reactor at the Bushehr power plant and has two other Russian-designed reactors in the works. Construction on one began in November 2019 and is scheduled to finish in 2023. Another is still in the planning stage.

Tehran had curtailed enrichment under the nuclear deal, from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. But the situation drastically changed in January after the U.S. drone assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has blamed the U.S. for ruining the so-called Iran Nuclear Deal.   © Reuters

"Iran is still adhering to some of its duties under the JCPOA, such as International Atomic Energy Agency oversight," Mohammed Marandi, political analyst at the University of Tehran, told Nikkei. "But with regards to research and development, the Iranians will no longer accept limitations due to the Europeans and Japanese [not cooperating]," he added.

The European Union tried to save the Iran Nuclear Deal after the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew. Later, however, the U.K., France and Germany invoked the dispute settlement framework in the deal after Iran increased enrichment activities on the heels of Soleimani's assassination. Even Japan tried to help by mediating between Tehran and Washington but ultimately failed to ease tensions.

Blix said it is unlikely Iran would attack a UAE nuclear facility because of the enormity of such a provocation. The UAE and Iran have a "mutual deterrent," he said, adding that "the additional protocol of the 1949 Geneva Convention contains Article 56, which would protect Barakah."

Israel, which is notably not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, has a highly advanced military. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. nuclear research entity, warns that Israel possesses nuclear weapons along with a large supply of ballistic and cruise missiles to deliver them. And there is no open consensus among experts as to the extent of Israel's nuclear program.

Analysts say that U.S. policy is encouraging a Middle East nuclear arms race in two ways. First, the U.S. defense and nuclear industries view the region as a lucrative market, with Saudi Arabia being a key buyer. Second, the inaction of Europe, Russia and China to counter U.S. sanctions against Iran do not encourage Tehran to remain a party to the nuclear deal.

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