Nuclear power, once considered too dangerous to contemplate, is experiencing a worldwide comeback. While China, Russia and India are leading this new surge, along with Iran, the Arab oil-producing states of the Gulf are also taking up the opportunities created by new technology and new safeguards. The construction of new reactors, officials say, will help to conserve the region's irreplaceable hydrocarbon resources and significantly reduce carbon emissions. Still other Arab states, such as Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen, are considering the nuclear option as an important way to provide more electricity and safe drinking water for their rapidly growing populations.
The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) first announced their intention to consider developing the peaceful use of nuclear energy in December 2006. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a fervent advocate of nuclear power for the Middle East and North Africa, agreed to provide the GCC with access to the latest technology and operational expertise, while Iran pledged assistance as well.
In February 2007, the six states agreed to set up a regional nuclear power and water desalination programme in cooperation with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). Saudi Arabia led the efforts to develop the programme, expected to be announced this year according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), the London-based organisation, which represents the global nuclear industry.
The move reflected growing concerns in the Gulf about its future energy security and its desire to reduce dependence on its own oil and gas. At present, the GCC has a common electricity grid which has a total installed capacity of about 80 gigawatts (GW). But with the demand for power rising about 10% a year, and by about 8% for desalinated water, an additional 60 GW of new capacity will be needed as soon as 2015, according to GCC officials.
Since then, the UAE, led by Abu Dhabi, has signed nuclear energy cooperation agreements with France, the UK and Japan, as well as a landmark nuclear power agreement with the US as a prelude to launching an ambitious programme of its own. The US agreement, which was approved by former President George W. Bush five days before he left office in January, enables Washington to share its nuclear technology with the Emirates but is still subject to ratification by the US Congress.
Under the terms of the deal, signed by former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and the UAE's Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE agreed to "renounce any intention to develop domestic enrichment and reprocessing capabilities," that could lead to the production of nuclear weapons. Instead, Abu Dhabi will obtain its supply of nuclear fuel from "reliable and responsible international suppliers," and will return any radioactive waste to them. It has also agreed to contribute $10m to support the creation of an international fuel bank by the IAEA, which has already signed a pact with the UAE to ensure adequate safeguards are...