ABU DHABI // The inaugural meeting of the UAE's international advisory group on nuclear energy brought the nation a step closer to achieving its ambitious goal of becoming the first Arab country to harness peaceful atomic power.
Since announcing its plan to develop a Dh150 billion (US$40 billion) nuclear energy programme in April 2008, the UAE has hurtled forward at breakneck speed. By 2017, the UAE plans to have the first of four reactors built, with nuclear power eventually supplying up to a quarter of the nation's energy needs. Within the last six months, it has penned deals with a South Korean university to help train an Emirati workforce, and awarded a US$20 billion contract to a South Korean consortium to build the reactors. Yesterday's meeting of the new oversight group, the International Advisory Board (IAB), was the latest milestone.
The nine-member board is headed by Hans Blix, a former diplomat and politician from Sweden who earned his spurs with a 17-year stint as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He later chaired the UN's team charged with searching for proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A senior government official involved in the nuclear programme said yesterday's meeting was also attended by representatives of the Critical National Infrastructure Authority, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.
A report will be published around the end of April, the official said. He said the Government's intent was to publish "as much information as possible". The board will provide "a full and unfettered view of the programme", the official said. "That its reports and public deliberations are going to be so publicly shared is unique," he said. "It's another part of how we're trying to establish a different standard here.
"If you can envision a future where all new nuclear states had objective, multi-national peer review of their programmes, there would be very little concern about non-peaceful uses and unsafe practices. The international community could be much more comfortable about the adoption of nuclear power and new nuclear states." The board includes scientists, experts in non-proliferation, nuclear safety and reactor components. They will use their technical knowledge to monitor the project's progress and offer suggestions to keep organisers on schedule.
The inclusion of some of the industry's brightest stars is not surprising, said David Butter, the Middle East regional director of the Economist Intelligence Unit. "It would seem to me that getting Hans Blix would be entirely in line with the Abu Dhabi approach of trying to cherry-pick the best available minds," he said. He said there was no suggestion from the international community that the UAE's nuclear programme had anything other than a civilian purpose. The openness of the board's procedures would reinforce this assessment, he said.
This contrasts with the approach taken by Iran, which is seen by some as being evasive and has triggered fears that the Islamic republic is attempting to manufacture nuclear weapons under the guise of developing a civilian nuclear power project. Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at the energy, environment and development department of Chatham House, a London-based international relations institute, said developing the expertise to build and run nuclear power stations could provide a lucrative niche, should the popularity of nuclear fission continue.
Some countries such as China were expanding the roll-out of nuclear power stations, he said, while others, such as Italy, were now closing reactors. "Post-Chernobyl, people are not building nuclear rectors the way that was anticipated," he said in reference to the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union, now part of the Ukraine.
But the news disappointed some energy experts who felt the UAE should focus its attention on cleaner power sources, such as solar technology. "We do not think this is a good idea or a good use of 40 billion dollars," said Jan Bernaek, a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International. "The entire infrastructure to support this industry must be built from the beginning. This could be an opportunity to invest in developing solar or wind technology, which can be working in a matter or weeks or months.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Chris Stanton
Hans Blix, Sweden ? Director general of the International Atomic Energy Authority from 1981 to 1997 ? Chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, a Stockholm-based organisation funded by the Swedish government Jacques Bouchard, France ? Special adviser to the chairman of the French Commissariat L'Energie Atomique KunMo Chung, South Korea ? Twice minister of science and technology in South Korea Thomas Graham, US ? Executive chairman of Lightbridge Corporation, which holds patents on a thorium-based nuclear fuel Takuya Hattori, Japan ? President of Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) and president of JAIF International Co-operation Centre Lady (Barbara) Judge, UK ? Chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority Mujid Kazimi, US ? Professor of nuclear and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Jukka Laaksonen, Finland ? Director general of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority Sir John Rose, UK ? Chief executive of Rolls-Royce, which manufactures nuclear components * Compiled by Daniel Bardsley, with files from WAM