After 12 years of discussion and negotiation, the UAE has finally received the go-ahead to operate the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant. The Barakah nuclear power plant (now up and running) will ensure that the UAE joins a club of just 30 countries worldwide. It will also be the first new country to launch a nuclear power plant in three decades, the last being China in 1990. Officials say output will amount to 25 per cent of the country’s energy needs. Financing for the plant comes from within the country and from South Korea.
Matthew Bunn, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and faculty lead for the Project on Managing the Atom, explains that the UAE underwent substantial security checks and agreed to a number of conditions in order to realise its nuclear dreams. ‘The UAE has taken, I would argue, quite a responsible approach,’ says Bunn. ‘They essentially realised when they embarked on this that they were going to be the first Arab country with nuclear power, and that would make people nervous. So they decided to sign up to every international convention they could think of.’ In particular, the country entered into a legally binding agreement with the United States, agreeing never to pursue uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, the two technologies key to producing a nuclear bomb.
Despite this, there are still worries about safety, as well as environmental and labour concerns. While the kinds of reactors being built don’t have material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb, concerns remain that terrorists could sabotage the plant. And, despite all assurances given, a nuclear facility in the Arabian Peninsula raises the spectre of nuclear weapons in the region. While the UAE has committed to never pursue such a goal, ‘in the broader Middle East, not everybody’s up for making that commitment,’ says Bunn. ‘The Iranians insisted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) [otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal] on maintaining at least some uranium enrichment and now with ongoing collapse of the JCPOA they’re going beyond the restraints that were agreed to.’
Meanwhile, the Saudis have said they’re going to build several nuclear power plants for energy purposes, though they haven’t yet started construction or signed any contracts. They are also unwilling to provide the assurances agreed to by the UAE.
There also remains a question as to why countries so rich in oil and natural gas would want nuclear power. The UAE says that it wants to export oil and natural gas to make money, and use something else for domestic electricity. But this doesn’t make it clear why they would pursue nuclear energy and not expand solar power – the price of which, unlike nuclear power – is falling. For Bunn, it comes partly down to the status of joining the nuclear club, as well as a desire to foster a cadre of people within the country who have an understanding of nuclear science. Both of these goals may well be sought by other countries, but for those unwilling to give the assurances offered by the UAE, it’s likely to a be a far more divisive proposition.