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Guest post: Another view on the UAE nuke deal

Last week Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione wrote on ForeignPolicy.com that the pending civilian nuclear cooperation deal between the U.S. and United Arab Emirates was "Half-baked and hasty at best, foolhardy and dangerous at worst" and would likely contribute to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The piece has stirred some debate in ...

Last week Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione wrote on ForeignPolicy.com that the pending civilian nuclear cooperation deal between the U.S. and United Arab Emirates was "Half-baked and hasty at best, foolhardy and dangerous at worst" and would likely contribute to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

The piece has stirred some debate in the nonproliferation community. Here’s one thoughtful response from Joe DeThomas, nonproliferation director at the U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation. He previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Nonproliferation and Ambassador to Estonia. The views expressed here and DeThomas’s own and do not represent those of the CRDF:

I may be disqualified from replying to Joe Cirincione’s article, since I have actually been to the U.A.E. and discussed its nuclear program with the people actually implementing it.  This will take all the fun out of any comments I make. But the piece does raise a number of questions that I think are worth addressing.

1.  Is there a nuclear arms race in the Gulf and Middle East?  Is interest in nuclear power really driven by the need to counter the Iranian program?

It is probably not coincidental that so many countries in the region, many of them Sunni, have suddenly decided to pursue nuclear power. However, it is probably also not coincidental that these grandiose plans coincided with $150-a-barrel oil and with the fact that booming electricity demand was causing them to consume the lifeblood of their economies at home.  But, are these countries really racing and if so is nuclear power for electricity generation the way they are racing to match the Iranians?  For the most part, I’d say no. 

First there is a lot more talk than action outside the UAE.  (Unless Saudi Arabia were to unleash a crash program, no country in the region outside of the UAE will have an operating nuclear power program before 2025.) Second, if there is any thought of using power reactors as a counter balance to Iran, it is in order to persuade public and elite opinion in the countries in question that they are matching the Iranians without doing any of the real things that would be necessary to create a real arms race. This is not to say that such posturing could not create a mess.  We should be paying attention to ways to keep any such shadow plays from creating real security problems.

2. Is the UAE program a potential proliferation threat?

If ever a program was designed to make it ill-suited for proliferation, it is the UAE program. First, the program did not flow out of a political-military calculation but out of a rather robust energy policy debate.  Second, it specifically rejects acquiring the front or back ends of the fuel cycle. Third, it will be very happy to send away spent fuel and does not wish to pursue a plutonium economy. Fourth, it is in such a hurry to deploy power reactors that it is not going to pursue many of the preliminary steps that other countries do to get ready for nuclear power (e.g., operate research reactors, which we have seen in India and the DPRK are much more useful for small weapons programs than big power reactors are). 

Fifth, because it is resource rich but people poor, the UAE is going to be highly dependent on foreign expertise and foreign firms to build, operate and regulate its program. It has gone out of its way to select outside expertise that will not have any incentive (and faces many disincentives) to assist or tolerate proliferation. Sixth, it has gone out of its way to constrain its future options by signing on to every constraining international agreement and inspection regime it could find. Seventh, it has selected technologies (LWR’s with a once-through fuel cycle) for its future program that are the least congenial to pursue proliferation.

Now, there are those who will argue that ANY nuclear technology in the Middle East presents proliferation and security risks. I suppose if we could dictate choices in the region there might be a case to be made to make the Middle East a nuclear technology free zone. But, that is not on the menu either politically or economically. No US strategy will persuade the countries of the region or the suppliers in the industrialized world to create a nuclear boycott on the entire Arab world. If we can’t stop the development of nuclear power in the region, we should at least have the sense to be happy if it is put in place in a way that minimizes the risks and maximizes our influence on the way it is used.

If we can show that countries that do things the right way get the benefit of an efficient, safe, secure nuclear power program while countries like Iran end up with clunky hybrid reactors that were obsolete before they ever generated a kilowatt, we might finally get somewhere. 

-Joseph DeThomas

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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