The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
On August 1, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab state to commission a nuclear power plant, just two weeks after sending a probe on a mission to Mars. Although both projects were undertaken in conjunction with third party expertise – the Barakah nuclear power plant was developed by Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and Korea Electric Power Corporation – they symbolize the UAE’s growing confidence and scientific progress. Having concluded that nuclear power would be more effective than solar, other renewables, and even natural gas at meeting the UAE’s domestic energy demand, Barakah is expected to provide 25% of the UAE’s electricity once fully operational.
When complete, Barakah will join other nuclear power plants in the Middle East, such as Bushehr-I in Iran. Bushehr-II and Akkuyu in Turkey are under construction, while Qasr Amra in Jordan and Umm Huwayd and Khor Kuweihin in Saudi Arabia are planned. The social, political, security, and economic contexts will be different in each of these states.
The motivations for the UAE in this field appear to include: addressing rising energy needs and concerns about climate change; increasing energy exports, economic diversification, and jobs plans (Emiratization); establishing the country’s scientific status; and securing another opportunity to form and extend external partnerships. The UAE nuclear power program was launched in 2008, with construction beginning at Barakah in 2012. But since then the regional security situation has deteriorated, encompassing the fallout from the Arab uprisings, including the war in Yemen, in which a Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE, intervened in March 2015 to back pro-government forces against Houthi rebels. The Houthis claimed they fired a cruise missile toward the Barakah site in December 2017, during the construction phase, but there was no evidence of a missile reaching the UAE.
The UAE worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency, including signing the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1995, concluding the U.N. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 2000, and signing the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement in 2003. The Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement was ratified in 2010. The year before, the UAE committed itself via domestic legislation to forego the acquisition of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. This has become known as the “gold standard” for future nuclear cooperation agreements because it precludes the use of the technology, skills, research, and development needed for a nuclear weapons program, which remains the core concern with Iran. Plutonium, a byproduct of the nuclear fuel cycle can also be used to make nuclear weapons.
One of the UAE’s bilateral agreements includes a 123 Agreement with the United States, named after Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which requires full IAEA safeguards, nonproliferation guarantees, and congressional approval before the transfer of nuclear material, equipment, and technology may occur. The UAE has also concluded numerous agreements with foreign regulators, including a Cooperation Arrangement with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that enhances safety and security of peaceful nuclear activities through technical exchanges, temporary personnel exchanges, and assistance partnerships for regulatory program development. This was signed in 2010, renewed in 2015, and it will probably be renewed again in 2020.
Since the UAE is legally bound to import uranium it undertakes no enrichment activities itself. Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation has contracts with Areva and Techsnabexport to supply uranium concentrates and enrichment. Uranium One and Rio Tinto supply natural uranium, with ConverDyn providing conversion services and Urenco providing enrichment services. All enriched uranium is supplied to Korea Electric Power Corporation for the manufacturing and delivery of fuel assemblies. Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, founded in 2009, employs hundreds of Emirati nuclear specialists who work with these international partners and will gain valuable knowledge in their respective areas of specialization.
In 2019, during the ongoing boycott against Qatar, Doha complained to the IAEA about the Barakah plant, stating that the lack of co-operation with neighboring states “regarding disaster planning, health and safety and the protection of the environment” are a serious threat to regional stability and the environment. Although the UAE committed to forego domestic uranium enrichment and has focused on safety (the project was two years behind schedule after the discovery of substandard safety-related control cabling), a lack of cooperation among neighbors, especially on counterterrorism, could be considered a weakness.
Saudi Arabia has a similar rationale to the UAE in its stated objectives to diversify its energy mix, utilizing less oil for power and water desalination plants and freeing up more for exportation. But there are concerns in the nonproliferation community that Saudi Arabia will circumvent the restrictions imposed by a 123 Agreement with the United States and favor domestic uranium enrichment to fuel its planned nuclear power program as well as engage in spent fuel reprocessing.
Saudi Arabia lacks the expertise to enrich uranium alone but the scale of nuclear power in the kingdom represents a valuable commercial opportunity to others, such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and South Korea, which are involved in uranium supply, enrichment, reactor design, and construction. So far, the signs are that Saudi Arabia is engaging most actively with China. In January 2016, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to construct a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor and agreed to jointly market it later that year. On August 25, 2017, the Saudi Geological Survey and China National Nuclear Corp signed a memorandum of understanding to explore and assess uranium and thorium resources.
President Donald J. Trump stated in December 2017 that he might not insist on the gold standard being applied to the kingdom in an effort to provide new market opportunities to help lift the nuclear contractor Westinghouse out of bankruptcy and counter Saudi cooperation with China. Former President Barack Obama’s administration advocated for a case-by-case approach to the 123 Agreement as well, but the lack of clarity from the Trump administration in the Saudi case has raised concerns, not least of all because of the message it sends to other states, notably Egypt, whose 123 Agreement with the United States expires in December 2021. The Trump administration’s negotiation with Saudi Arabia has become more complex since August 8, 2018, when Westinghouse was acquired by Brookfield Asset Management, a Canadian company. That same month Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s foreign minister, criticized the arrest of Saudi women’s activists in the kingdom, prompting the Saudis to cut ties. A role for Westinghouse in Saudi nuclear power ambitions looks to be highly unlikely so long as Saudi-Canadian tensions persist.
This episode, combined with increasing congressional oversight and an Israeli policy that urges a tough nonproliferation stance against the Saudis, is likely to force the Trump administration to abide by the gold standard in future dealings with Saudi Arabia, but only if the kingdom chooses to engage with the United States on nuclear power. Other countries such as Russia, France, and China could easily fill the gap, but since Saudi Arabia remains dependent on the United States for security assistance a degree of leverage remains. The Saudi rivalry and threat perception concerning Iran is a major consideration when assessing Riyadh’s nuclear power policy. For example, in March 2018 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that “If Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” By November 6, 2018, Saudi Arabia had broken ground on its first nuclear research reactor (Argentine designed) at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.
In February 2019 Iran looked set to secure access to Syria’s phosphate mines, a potential source of uranium. This may have influenced the crown prince’s decision to step up work with China by establishing a yellowcake uranium harvesting facility near the northwestern Saudi city of Ula, which in August 2020 was found to be extracting yellowcake from uranium ore, an early step toward making nuclear fuel. It remains an open question as to when the kingdom will dispense with the Small Quantities Protocol that it negotiated in 2009 when ratifying the IAEA Safeguards. It exempts countries with little or no nuclear material from regular inspections. But the yellowcake development along with the construction of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology will likely make further safeguards on nuclear material, first requested by the IAEA in April 2019, a priority in the coming months.
Apart from political influence, another brake on the Saudi nuclear power industry may come in the form of economics. First, nuclear power plants are expensive to build. For instance, the one remaining two-unit construction project formerly run by Westinghouse, the Vogtle plant in Georgia in the United States, has a completion cost of $27 billion, double the original estimate. This could mean a scaling back of the 16 nuclear reactors the Saudis expected to construct at a cost of up to $80 billion. The combination of lower oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic has made such economic considerations essential. However, once operational, nuclear power plants are relatively cheap to run. Second, the pricing of new photovoltaic projects is constantly changing due to new innovations such as more efficient solar cells. Some of these projects are selling output for as low as 2.42 cents per kilowatt hour. Third, global warming is boosting solar panel output while rising sea temperatures will lower Barakah’s performance due to the range of cooling equipment needed to deal with higher seawater temperatures in the Gulf. This trend, when coupled with better solar storage technology, may yet affect energy return on investment and life-cycle analysis calculations.
The Gulf appears to be approaching a new, uncertain era: a scramble for sources of uranium, possibly followed by the acquisition of dual-use technologies, enrichment, and a capacity for breakout. This is all the more concerning since the United States is no longer a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions and lacks a 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia. And the United States is not in a position to influence allies and adversaries to push for the gold standard in their own dealings with customers. A U.S. JCPOA snapback, new negotiations, or efforts toward a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Gulf region or wider Middle East could go a long way to supporting the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The consequences of delay may facilitate new patron-client relations, a nuclear arms race, and raise the prospect of U.S. or Israeli preemptive strikes against any suspected or nascent nuclear weapons programs.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project at Lancaster University.
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