18 January 2009

UAE and US sign nuclear deal

By Robin Wigglesworth (Abu Dhabi), The Financial Times, January 18 2009

The United Arab Emirates has signed a nuclear energy co-operation agreement with the US, putting it on the path to become the first Arab state to develop nuclear power.

Despite international concern over Iran’s controversial nuclear power programme and uranium enrichment, many Arab states – particularly in the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf – have expressed a desire to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes.

In an important statement of US approval of the UAE’s atomic power ambitions, Condoleezza Rice, the outgoing secretary of state, and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister, on Friday signed a bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear co-operation

“Under the terms of this agreement, the UAE will gain access to significant capabilities and experience in the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Sheikh Abdullah said in a statement. “This will allow the UAE to develop its civilian nuclear program to the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation.”

Ms Rice said the key to the deal is the UAE’s willingness to import, rather than produce, fuel that would be used in its proposed reactors. The UAE would also return all spent nuclear fuel rather than attain the technical capability to reprocess it.

“That really does minimise – matter of fact, almost eliminates – the proliferation risks,” Ms Rice said, according to Associated Press.

The deal could still run into difficulties. Barack Obama, the incoming president, will have to decide whether to ratify the deal, and some members of the US House of Representatives oppose the deal over concern it would lead to a nuclear energy race in the region.

“In the Middle East, a nuclear energy race could be as perilous as a nuclear arms race,” Ed Markey, a Democrat congressman, said on Thurday. ”I hope that President-elect Obama will seize the opportunity to put the brakes on the Bush administration’s policy of placing nuclear commerce above common sense.”

Despite an abundance of oil and gas in the region, many Gulf states are plagued by power shortages after the break-neck speed of economic growth in recent years. Electricity demand has soared in the UAE in particular due to energy-intensive water desalination and air-conditioning needed for much of the year.

Several emirates of the seven that make up the UAE suffer from periodic black-outs, as gas imported from neighbouring Qatar is mostly used for power generation in Abu Dhabi, the capital, and the commercial hub of Dubai.

The Opec member estimates that peak demand for electricity will double to 40,000 megawatts by 2020, but current capacity is only roughly half of this. The country also hopes that nuclear power will lessen its “environmental footprint”, among the worst in the world.

In 2007 six Arab Gulf states, including the UAE, asked the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to study the feasibility of a joint nuclear programme.

The six states have even called on Iran to co-operate in a joint development plan to defuse tensions over the Islamic republic’s continuing nuclear programme, which many fear could lead to Tehran developing nuclear weapons.

The US and the UAE first signed a memorandum of understanding on nuclear power cooperation in April 2008, which led to Friday’s so-called “123 Agreement”, known after Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, which establishes a legal framework for commerce in civilian nuclear energy technology and material.

The UAE signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with France last year, and several French firms have submitted proposals to the authorities in Abu Dhabi to develop two reactors. The UAE’s Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation last year awarded US engineering and construction company CH2M Hill a contract to manage its atomic investment programme.

“The agreement will also open opportunities for US firms to be active participants in the UAE nuclear energy program,” Sheikh Abdullah added in the statement.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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