US Foreign Policy

A New Spring in the Middle East? The Emerging Nuclear Energy Renaissance

in Program

By Marianne Nari Fisher – The Middle East North Africa (MENA) Nuclear Construction Conference was hosted by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey in late September 2012 in Dubai. This recent political and commercial congregation demonstrates the serious intent of these Middle Eastern states to move forward with nuclear energy programs. Governing bodies from the five states met with international regulatory entities and interested companies, such as South Korea’s KEPCO, France’s AREVA, and Russia’s Rosatom. A 2010 Stimson study had accurately concluded in Nuclear Dangers, Nuclear Realities that “the nuclear renaissance is in full bloom in the Middle East.”

An understandable reluctance by the international community to encourage and finance start-up nuclear energy programs in a currently volatile Middle East, however, is leading to a new grouping of regional states looking internally for financial and technological support. The US continues efforts to persuade nations beginning commercial nuclear projects to pledge to forego uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing — key elements in converting commercial nuclear enterprises into weapon programs. Yet, sustaining this position may soon lead to loss of US political leadership on the issue, since others, including China, France, and Russia are certainly not reluctant to get involved with these start-up programs in the Middle East without such hard and fast preconditions.

The firm stance held by the US is perpetuated by continued long-standing conflicting policy objectives. US Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman gave a sense of official priorities in a speech last year at the Nuclear Energy Assembly 2011, where he declared that “in order to succeed, nuclear power must address three other critical challenges: commercial viability, the back end of the fuel cycle, and the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.” Historically, US companies were key players in nuclear energy construction, and there are enduring pressures for the United States to remain engaged in the market and hedge the risk of new nuclear weapons programs. The issue also carries serious economic implications and opportunities, such as broadening markets for US nuclear suppliers that could result in job creation at home, electricity sales, and more.  

The UAE is the first of the five countries to have undertaken definitive steps towards establishing a civilian nuclear energy program. It broke ground in July 2012 for the first of a planned 16 reactors. The “123” deal negotiated by the US and the UAE in 2009 that lessened trade restrictions while maintaining the highest security standards is currently hailed as the gold standard for such arrangements. The National, a UAE based major media outlet continues to praise the details of the deal, recently claiming “the UAE is the first country to embark on a new civil nuclear programme since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. After the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant last year, the Emirates and other developing nations are set to carry the torch of nuclear growth.”

Up to this point, the 123 bargain has worked well for bilateral relations between Abu Dhabi and Washington. Nonetheless, other states in the region have interpreted it as too restrictive. To date, no other Middle Eastern nation has yet been willing to conclude a similar arrangement.  As a result, nuclear energy development in the region is shifting away from a historical reliance on the US.

Countries such as South Korea and France are now leading the forefront of this energy development by becoming the largest suppliers of such technologies. South Korea’s KEPCO has won many of the long-term contracts and has taken on a major of the costs for the reactors that the UAE aims to complete by 2020. Although American companies are certainly involved in the UAE project through sub-contracts and consulting, a less restrictive US policy could permit American entities to play a stronger role in other emerging civilian energy programs in the region. This ideal would fulfill President Obama’s vision put forth in his 2010 State of the Union Address, where he asserted “the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy — and America must be that nation.”

At this time, US policy may impede its ability to maintain leadership on the issue. To turn the tables around, the US could signal readiness to take a more flexible approach in future negotiations with proposed civil nuclear programs in the region. By operating on a case-by-case basis with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, the US can promote its greater involvement in these enterprises. Echoing Poneman, “the United States must be a vocal and active advocate in describing this [nuclear power] vision globally.” Continued US leadership overseeing these types of civil nuclear programs would put this nation in a better position to steer these countries away from weapon-related activities.

Photo credit: IAEA

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