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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Keeping Up With The (Nuclear) Joneses

In the last two years, more than a dozen Arab states have announced plans to pursue nuclear power programs. This has raised concerns that such countries are interested in developing nuclear weapons.

All state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have the legal right to develop nuclear energy programs. Yet civilian nuclear power programs can provide the technology and expertise necessary to begin a nuclear weapons program. Some civilian nuclear reactors also provide the fuel necessary for the construction of nuclear weapons.

There has been growing international interest in nuclear energy options, but the particular spike in Arab interest has raised concerns about parties' true motives.

Cairo said in 2006 that it would start constructing nuclear power stations. In December 2007, it said that it would not sign the additional protocol to the NPT, which allows U.N. inspectors to make intrusive inspections of nuclear sites on short notice. However, the protocol is voluntary, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is providing technical assistance to establish the country's first nuclear power plant for electricity generation.

Amman announced in early 2007 that it would pursue a nuclear power program, with the aim of building the country's first reactor by 2015. Jordan is working with the IAEA to assess the feasibility of a nuclear power plant, and has signed the additional protocol.

Gulf Cooperation Council
The GCC announced in 2006 that its members aim to jointly to develop a nuclear power plant in cooperation with the IAEA. The first stage of a feasibility study was completed in late 2007.

GCC States
In addition to joint GCC plans, the United Arab Emirates is moving forward with plans for nuclear power and is working with the IAEA to study the feasibility of a nuclear power and water desalination plant. The UAE has said it would import its nuclear fuel and sign the additional protocol. Qatar has expressed interest in nuclear power. Saudi Arabia has discussed provision of nuclear energy equipment and expertise with countries such as Russia and France.

Sana'a has expressed interest in nuclear power for economic development.

North Africa
Both Algeria and Morocco are working with the IAEA to study the feasibility of developing nuclear power programs. Libya is reportedly buying at least one nuclear reactor from France for nuclear desalination, and may pursue a broader nuclear energy program. Tunisia has also expressed interest in its own program.

The Arab states argue that nuclear power is part of a wider strategy to reduce dependence on oil and gas for energy. With growing populations, all the states--especially GCC members--face high and increasing energy demands. In addition, several intend to use at least some nuclear power for desalination.

States that possess oil and gas also argue that exporting these resources is more economically advantageous than consuming them domestically. Thus, developing nuclear energy can appear economically sound, even to hydrocarbon-rich countries.

Many also view nuclear programs as a technological milestone on the path of economic development.

However, security concerns could be a key factor:

For Saudi Arabia, a nuclear energy program providing a possible foundation for a future nuclear weapons program could serve as a hedge against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. In addition, Arab countries may be trying to send the message that a nuclear Iran would spark a regional arms race.

The Arab states have lived with a nuclear-armed Israel for decades, so it is unlikely that they have suddenly decided to counter Israeli power with their own nuclear weapons. Yet some Arab states still view Israel as a potential threat, and also would gain a sense of national pride by matching Israel's nuclear weapons.

Other regional issues help drive the programs, such as the rivalry between Algiers and Rabat.

Arab states increasingly doubt U.S. security guarantees and may be losing confidence in the global non-proliferation regime. Developing nuclear technology and facilities with a goal of eventually developing nuclear weapons provides a hedge against future global security crises.

To read an extended version of this article, log on to Oxford Analytica's Web site.

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