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MIDEAST: ‘France, U.S. Pushing Arabs Into Nuclear Race’

ISTANBUL, Oct 25 2009 (IPS) - The decision by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates to build nuclear reactors has unleashed frenetic, politically backed competition between giant corporations from France, the U.S., Japan and South Korea to win contracts estimated at more than 40 billion dollars.

This may lead to a nuclear race involving other Gulf Arab states.

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan signed a new law Oct. 4 to regulate production and development of nuclear energy in the federation of seven emirates that he chairs.

UAE authorities were quick to announce that the nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. “The UAE’s nuclear programme is a peaceful project based on its commitment not to enrich uranium, and its ability to achieve the necessary degree of fuel security through a strong infrastructure,” UAE special representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Hamad Al-Kaabi told reporters.

Kaabi said the UAE has set up a Federal Authority of Nuclear Regulation to promote safety, security and radiological protection, with former IAEA technical adviser William Travers as director-general.

He declined to say how many reactors the UAE intends to build. The UAE nuclear plants are scheduled to be operational in 2017.

The UAE, a leading oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia and Russia, is signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Seemingly standard competition among big corporations to win a multi- billion bid, the UAE nuclear programme has unleashed a tough political race, where France apparently has the upper hand.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy co-chaired the inauguration of the first French military base in the UAE in May, in what is considered a long step forward to integrate the oil-rich Gulf region – so far a sort of U.S. ‘protectorate’ – into French security strategies.

Sarkozy is reportedly promoting French companies for the UAE nuclear deal. A consortium formed by Areva, TOTAL and Suez-Gaz de France is leading the race to construct the first nuclear reactor in an Arab country.

Other major competitors are a U.S.-Japanese bid by Hitachi and General Electric; the South Korean Hyundai-Samsung; and Westinghouse from the U.S. A nuclear cooperation agreement between the U.S. and the UAE was signed in January in the last days of the Bush administration.

The U.S. business sector has been seeking the support of neo-conservative political groups to push its case, as a number of Congressmen raised objections that “components” may fall in the hands of Iran. Another Western fear is that nuclear material could fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

Concerns were also raised that the UAE plans may lead to a nuclear race in the Middle East.

“Amid the gathering storm over Iran’s controversial nuclear ambitions, the race is on among Arab states to build nuclear power plants of their own, opening up immense trade opportunities for the industrialised world as well as the specter of proliferation,” the United Press International wrote Sep. 9.

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia “are competing for contracts in the nuclear energy bonanza that is emerging in the Middle East as Arab states seek to generate more power to feed their growing economies and to build desalination plants, a vital element in development plans as water resources shrink,” UPI added in its comment.

The French government has reportedly promised assistance to Qatar and Morocco to launch nuclear programmes.

Egypt and Jordan have plans to build nuclear plans. Egypt signed a cooperation agreement with Russia last year.

“It is clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon programme would spur a regional arms race, involving the acquisition of nuclear arms by other regional powers like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Turkey,” Mahtab Alam Rizvi, research assistant at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses wrote last March.

Saudi Arabia had already announced plans to pursue peaceful nuclear technology as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), he wrote. “The Saudis, along with their fellow GCC members recently announced a plan to create a body that would provide enriched uranium to the states of the Middle East,” Rizvi pointed out.

Rizvi said that if other states in the Middle East that have expressed an interest in nuclear energy follow through with their proposed plans, “the potential for increased instability in the region could have a detrimental effect on the price of oil in the region.”

The UAE stresses that its nuclear facilities would be safe. The UAE state-run news agency WAM declared Oct. 6 that the UAE “yet again shows the way ahead to others.”

The same day, the Gulf News daily wrote: “This is the key to UAE’s trail- blazing nuclear strategy, which is based on the premise that it wants the power from the nuclear stations but does not want to deal with the fuel.

“It has contributed to setting up a new UN agency which will handle all fuel enrichment and processing. This means that the UAE can never fall under suspicion of misusing this nuclear material, and has helped set up a system that many other would-be nuclear states will be able to follow.

The editorial warned, however, that the dangers from proliferation of nuclear weapons are serious. “It is essential to stop the possibility that the material for a weapon of mass destruction could end up in the hands of an irresponsible government, or be passed on to a terrorist group.”

The Khaleej Times wrote in an editorial: “What is remarkable is the UAE’s resolve to keep its nuclear power programme totally above board and beyond the pale of all controversies and disputes.

“(With) the crucial policy decision by UAE, seeking civilian nuclear option mostly for generating electricity and yet avoiding the critical enrichment process, the UAE has once again shown the way forward to others in the region.”

The London-based World Nuclear Association (WNA) that promotes nuclear energy and supports companies in global nuclear industry, said the UAE law aims to “promote the highest standards of nuclear safety, nuclear security and radiological protection.”

The U.S. will have the right to cancel any agreement if the UAE reneges on its commitment not to engage in enrichment or reprocessing, it said.

The WNA stressed that the UAE law provides for harsh civil and criminal penalties for unauthorised use, theft, transport or trade in nuclear materials.

The WNA says the UAE has plans for three reactors to be online by 2020, and has signed cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding with companies in France, the UK and the U.S.

*This article is part of an IPS-Soka Gakkai International (SGI) project on nuclear abolition. The writer is a correspondent of the IDN-InDepthNews service.

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