Why UAE deserves nuclear power

There is a well thought through industrial logic that underlies the UAE's nuclear drive.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National.
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The US Congress was formally notified last week by the Obama administration of the proposed nuclear pact between the US and the UAE (known as a 123 agreement) which opens the way for the UAE to acquire US nuclear technology and material in pursuit of its peaceful nuclear energy programme. Within the next 90 days of this notification (81 days at the time of publication) Congress must decide where it stands on the agreement. Should Congress decide to approve the deal, it will do nothing and it will automatically take effect. But if any opponents manage to drum up significant support there will be a vote, at which point a qualified majority of two-thirds can amend or defeat the agreement. The agreement per se does not create any procurement obligation - rather, it is an authorisation that allows US companies to compete and place bids to be part of the UAE's nuclear future. Should the deal be approved, however, the UAE will voluntarily and legally commit to a number of exceptionally stringent provisions on nuclear security, safety and transparency. With Washington now reflecting one last time on the deal, this is a good moment to revisit its intrinsic merits, address the legitimate concerns that have naturally arose and debunk unwarranted linkages and disingenuous assertions that have been attached to it. Critics have voiced concerns based on geopolitical issues and safety; some have even argued that the UAE should not be allowed such technology because of future uncertainties, or claim that the UAE would not prove to be an adequate caretaker. The reality is that the UAE's nuclear venture is a strategic decision meant to ensure the country's future development. For this reason, the country's leadership has done its utmost to explain its nuclear vision to key constituencies. This is the most ambitious nuclear energy program to have been launched in recent times, one that may well emerge as the model for future such ventures. The UAE is expected to spend up to $60 billion during the next 20 years to build the world's most modern fleet of nuclear reactors to sustain the country's demographic and economic growth. In fact, the rationale behind the UAE's nuclear plans has everything to do with the country's rapidly growing energy demand. It needs to more than double electricity output by 2020, a goal that cannot be met by the country's natural gas supply alone. There is a well-thought industrial logic that underlies the UAE's nuclear drive. The UAE is seeking a single technology to maximise its investment and become a model of excellence. The reliability of nuclear power would complement other sources of electricity, including the UAE's new energy initiatives. Given the sensitive nature of nuclear technology and the risks of diversion for military purposes, it was always expected that this venture would attract scrutiny and prompt speculation. Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, countries that want access to nuclear technology commit to forego any nuclear weapons ambitions or programs. But in reality, countries that develop a complete nuclear program have what is commonly called a break-out capability. Some have therefore speculated that the UAE plans to develop its own option of "strategic ambiguity" to deter external threats, thus participating in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. No one will deny that the UAE operates in a volatile neighborhood, but the country certainly has more to lose than to gain from such a race. Its security comes from bilateral defence agreements with major powers and being a responsible member of the global community with multilateral commitments. Both would be greatly jeopardised by a reckless nuclear weapons program. In reality, the UAE went much further than making this strategic argument. It offered the most significant concessions to date from a country never found in violation of NPT rules: under the terms of its White Paper on nuclear energy and an agreement with the IAEA, the UAE has relinquished the right to enrich or reprocess uranium. The UAE will therefore have no capacity to produce the fissile material that is essential to any nuclear device. The equation is simple: no nuclear fuel, no weaponisation. And just across the waters of the Gulf, Iran refuses to relinquish, even temporarily, its very uranium enrichment activities, which are creating strategic ambiguity and fuelling suspicions of a regional arms race. Furthermore, strategic ambiguity assumes that the concerned state has absolute and exclusive authority over its nuclear program. But rather than favouring a state monopoly model, the UAE will involve the industrial and business communities in its program, intentionally inviting them to finance, build and operate its nuclear reactors and effectively outsourcing elements of its programme. These actors, who will have access to the most sensitive parts of the programme, simply have no interest in covering up a potential diversion of nuclear technology. The UAE has also established an independent nuclear regulatory authority staffed by Emirati and foreign experts that will work in coordination with the IAEA to monitor and enforce the transparency and safety measures that the country has committed to, including the recently signed Additional Protocol. So instead of "strategic ambiguity", the UAE has opted for the more responsible and sustainable "zero ambiguity". All these layers of security and safety have been embedded in the legal and regulatory frameworks. The 123 agreement only adds to that by giving the US incommensurate influence over the building and operational process. And under the terms of the agreement, should the UAE renege on its commitment not to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel, it is obligated to return all the technology it acquired from the US, ruining a multi-billion, multi-year investment. This has set the bar much higher than with other 123 agreements, such as the one with Egypt, which stipulates such sanctions at a far later stage - the actual testing of a nuclear device. This is the irony of the 123 agreement: should the US Congress approve the deal, it will maximise its influence over the UAE's nuclear future. But if the agreement is rejected, tough US export rules and the extra transparency and access voluntarily stipulated will not apply. There are several nuclear providers lining up at the UAE's door, notably France, South Korea and Japan, all countries with strong nuclear energy infrastructure and expertise. Access to US nuclear technology is highly desired, but not vital. True, its absence could limit the UAE's choice and perhaps reduce the quality of subsequent bids. But in no way would it change the country's determination, timeline and plans. Already some politicians and pundits have sought to link the UAE's suitability for American partnership to human rights issues and to stereotypical views of Arab nations as isolationist and volatile. The UAE for its part is quick to admit to its human rights limitations and has striven to align itself with internationally benchmarked standards on a range of issues from labour rights to human trafficking. Additionally, this tiny country is all too aware of its multilateral responsibilities. A key sign of this is its deployment of humanitarian and peacekeeping personnel to the most troubled parts of the planet, from Afghanistan, to Lebanon, to Kosovo, its generous and comprehensive global aid programmes and its readiness at every turn to use its diplomatic clout to establish consensus. Should the US Congress turn down the deal, the US nuclear industry will lose more than jobs and business. Simply put, the reliability of the US as a nuclear exporter will be gravely undermined. If the UAE programme, with the most stringent and voluntary standards to date, is deemed too risky by Congress, then it will be no surprise if other states exploring investing into nuclear energy turn to other nuclear exporters. The US will have missed an opportunity to shape the new nuclear age. As the US State Department's own experts put it: "This agreement can serve as a model for countries in the region pursuing responsible civil nuclear energy development undertaken in full conformity with international non-proliferation commitments and obligations." With the NPT up for review next year, and the world struggling to adapt to the challenges of climate change and nuclear proliferation, rejecting the 123 agreement would undermine what is widely hailed as the model for future nuclear energy programs. Critics argue against the deal based on future uncertainties, but the future is by definition uncertain. All that can be done to minimise uncertainty is voluntarily being done, from physical safeguards to legal obligations. What the UAE needs is a reliable and decisive partner. The Obama administration has stepped up to the challenge. The US Congress needs to get on board as well.