Japan and the United Arab Emirates – A Nuclear Family?

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.


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