by David Adam Stott
Concerned about the sustainability of its oil and gas reserves, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been taking steps to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on natural resource exports. The most eye-catching of these changes has been the rapid development of Dubai as a finance, services and travel hub in the last decade. A further plank in this strategy has recently been revealed: UAE plans to embark upon a nuclear power programme. Emphasising transparency and close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it hopes to have the first of its reactors on line by 2017.
Rather than taking the more tortuous route of developing indigenous expertise, the Emirates have been proposing joint-venture schemes with foreign contractors to construct and operate its nuclear power plants. Japan became the fourth such country to sign a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement after France, the USA, and the UK. To secure their participation, and to maintain its image as an outward-looking, foreign investment-friendly nation, the Emirates has stressed that it will not enrich uranium itself but import nuclear fuel for its plants. These supplies will come from a foreign partner and, furthermore, the UAE will return all spent nuclear fuel rather than reprocess it. The IAEA will also have the right to conduct snap inspections and be allowed unlimited access to the nuclear sites. This stands in marked contrast to Iran, which persists with enrichment which can be used for producing weapons material despite claiming its nuclear programme is also aimed solely at generating electricity. To acquire nuclear weapons it is necessary to either pursue uranium enrichment or develop spent fuel reprocessing capabilities which can produce the necessary plutonium.
Given the furore over Iran’s nuclear programme, the UAE’s plans could potentially transform the landscape for nuclear power generation in the Middle East and beyond. Critics contend that even strictly civilian nuclear programmes could lead to nuclear proliferation in the region, especially given the risks of illicit trade and the UAE’s history of close ties with Iran. However, supporters argue that the UAE’s programme will set a good example for other potential developers of nuclear power in the Middle East, most notably Iran. At present, IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei is among the many who believe that Israel is the only state in the Middle East to actually possess nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. (Despite hiding behind a policy of so-called “nuclear opacity”, Israel is widely believed to possess between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads.) Indeed, in response to Israel’s suspected nuclear capability, many Arab states have frequently called for the Middle East and North Africa to be free of nuclear weapons. Given the lack of American pressure on Israel, Iran’s enrichment programme and the increasing number of countries exploring nuclear power in the region, this is unlikely to materialise.
Although the UAE has so far held discussions with various nuclear producers such as the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and South Korea, this paper will focus largely on Japan’s role in the programme. Firstly, it will briefly examine the history of nuclear power in both the UAE and Japan. Thereafter, the motivations of Japan and the other foreign bidders will be considered before conclusions are drawn.
The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman – rely exclusively on fossil fuels for electricity generation and have been experiencing 5-7% annual demand growth in recent years. Given their locations, water desalination also consumes large qualities of oil and gas. A 2009 report estimates that electricity demand in the GCC block will increase 10% per annum to 2015, accompanied by desalination demand rising annually by 8%, in total requiring 60 gigawatts of electricity (GWe) of new capacity by 2015 (World Nuclear Association, ‘Nuclear Power in the United Arab Emirates’ June 2009).
To meet future demand, the GCC states announced in December 2006 that they were looking into harnessing nuclear energy. All six members are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and France quickly signalled its willingness to cooperate, whilst Iran also promised assistance. GCC members, led by Saudi Arabia, agreed in February 2007 with the IAEA to launch a feasibility study into a GCC-wide nuclear power and desalination scheme, with Riyadh envisioning a programme emerging around 2009.
However, since the IAEA submitted a pre-feasibility study to the regional body in late 2007 there has been no progress in any joint GCC nuclear programme, and various member states have consequently signed their own bilateral agreements with established nuclear energy producers. Most recently, Oman signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) in July 2009. In January 2008, Qatar and France inked a similar deal. Bahrain subsequently sealed a nuclear energy MoU with the United States in March 2008, and Manama has also indicated it will forgo enrichment and reprocessing technology and equipment. As in the UAE, it intends to purchase nuclear fuel on the international market instead. Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are presently discussing the content and scope of their own bilateral nuclear cooperation deals with France. An agreement with Riyadh is likely to be signed by the end of 2009. Of the non-GCC members in the region, both Yemen and Jordan have signalled their interest in harnessing nuclear energy. Indeed, the latter already has nuclear cooperation agreements with Britain, Canada, France, the United States, Russia, China and South Korea.
Notwithstanding, the deal with the UAE contains significantly more substance than the other bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with other GCC members. Indeed, the UAE has been in the vanguard of such unilateral moves, and in April 2008 independently published a comprehensive nuclear energy policy outline. This white paper was assembled with input from the IAEA and the governments of France, the USA, Britain, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, and South Korea. It forecast electricity demand growing by 9% per annum from 15.5 GWe in 2008 to over 40 GWe in 2020, with natural gas supplies sufficient for only half of this. At present, around 98% of the UAE’s total capacity is derived from gas. Indeed, in 2008 Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest and biggest of the seven Emirates with the largest oil reserves, began importing natural gas from Qatar as its own deposits contain too much sulphur to make power generation cost effective. Imported coal was dismissed as an option to meet this shortfall due to environmental and energy security implications, whilst buttressing extant oil and diesel generation was also discounted due to environmental and cost concerns.
The reason for this increasing demand has been the urbanisation and construction boom of the last decade, as record oil revenues have fuelled economic expansion and population growth. Indeed, the UAE was one of the fastest growing economies in the world between 2000 and 2007, achieving a compound annual growth rate of 9.3% in the five years to the end of 2007. (Figures from Global Research, part of Kuwait’s Global Investment House.)
In particular Dubai, the largest city in the Emirates, has been at the forefront of these changes, as it strives to remodel its economy from reliance on almost depleted natural resource exports. For instance, the Dubai Mall is the largest shopping centre in the world and Dubailand will be the largest amusement park when it fully opens in 2012, two times bigger than Florida’s Disney World. The city is also slated to have the most comprehensive metro system, the biggest airport, the longest waterfront, and the largest indoor skiing facility. Perhaps the most startling of these developments are the three man-made Palm Islands (Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira) which will add 520 kilometres of beaches to Dubai’s coastline. A similar development is The World, an artificial archipelago of some 300 islands shaped in the image the Earth’s landmass, located 4 kilometres off the coast. Naturally, such huge projects require ever-increasing electric capacity to sustain them, straining the UAE’s power grid.
via Globeistan – http://globeistan.com/?p=4420