The atoms family

Who says the nuclear family is shrinking? In the Middle East, it's about to become a whole lot bigger

By SAM SER
October 7, 2007 09:04

 
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For years, Israel was the only country in the entire Middle East with a nuclear program. That's about to change. The list of Arab states that are actively pursuing nuclear power, or seriously considering doing so, is a long one: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates. Contracts have been signed, huge sums have been invested and work is under way in several instances. As if the thought of nuclear power in the hands of Iran wasn't worrisome enough, pan-Arab nuclear power is as real a prospect as ever. Is this bad news for the Jewish state, which for some four decades has enjoyed uncontested strategic deterrence thanks to its assumed nuclear weapons stockpile? Does it signal a dangerous escalation of nuclear threats for the entire region? Is it, on the contrary, a sign of progress for governments that for far too long have failed to offer their people the technological and financial development they need? Or is it, typically, grandiose promises on which regional leaders are unlikely to deliver? There are enough indications to suspect all of the above. Even more so than in North America and Europe, where hundreds of nuclear power plants have been the focus of heated public debate since shortly after World War II, the issue of atomic energy becomes particularly thorny in the supercharged milieu of the Middle East. On one hand, an increase in the use of nuclear energy could lead to a decline in the use of petroleum, which would mean downgrading "the oil weapon" - a boon to Israel and all those wary of the power that oil brings to Arab regimes. On the other hand, nuclear power could also lead to weapons programs that would upset a very fragile strategic balance in the region. Now, with a very wary Israel watching, Arab states are trying to walk a tightrope that will allow them to solve their dire energy needs, and at the same time provide a viable nuclear defensive capability without antagonizing Iran, Israel or the US. THE MOST innocent motive for Arab states' desire for nuclear power is an energy situation bordering on crisis. Most of these countries are growing rapidly, with demands on their electric grids growing just as quickly. As it is, many of them generate too little electricity for current needs, not to mention the huge leap in demand expected over the next 20-30 years. Jordan, for example, which produces no oil and imports 80 percent of its natural gas, must import more than 550 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year just to keep pace with current demands. If the kingdom's economy is to continue growing to alleviate the more than 15% unemployment rate, it will require vast amounts of energy - and fast. Where doubts about the rush to go nuclear begin to creep in, however, is in the choice of nuclear energy over alternatives, especially when some of the countries choosing the nuclear path are among the world's wealthiest in terms of oil and natural gas. "I think one would have to wonder about the need of some states for nuclear power given their own energy resources," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in response to a recent conference in which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council announced their keen interest in developing nuclear energy. "It's one thing for a state to be running out of natural gas in 34 years, which is the case of Egypt. It is quite another for the state to be the most oil-rich state in the world." Egypt derives a huge amount of its electricity from hydroelectricity via the Aswan High Dam project, is an exporter of both oil and natural gas and has huge areas well suited for solar power. Kuwait, with proven oil reserves of nearly 100 billion barrels, produces three billion kWh more than it needs each year. Do countries like these really need nuclear power to create electricity and desalinate water? "Isn't that where Iran is headed?" John Pike asks sarcastically. "For Israel," says Pike, director of globalsecurity.org who testifies before Congress regularly on a range of security issues including nuclear proliferation, "the obvious concern is being surrounded by hostile states with nuclear weapons. You're talking about states that have not been models of political stability. You might be able to barely tolerate a nuclear-armed Egypt, or a nuclear-armed House of Saud, which is risk-averse. But who knows what kind of people might be running those places 20 years down the road? The risk of a miscalculation is always there, as is the possibility of weapons getting loose... You look at this and you say, this is just not a good picture." Remarking on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, Gideon Frank, the deputy board chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, delivered a warning to the international community last month. "We can hardly remain oblivious," he said, "to intensive efforts by some in our region to develop weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign existence and calls for our destruction." With Israel taking a vigilant stance vis-à-vis Teheran's nuclear ambitions - and with a purported air strike last month on what foreign sources are saying was a nuclear facility in northeastern Syria - why would Arab states risk breaking the nuclear status quo? Pike, agreeing with most observers, says Iran is the main reason that Arab regimes have suddenly become so intrigued by the atom. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots," he says. "If Iran is going to go nuclear, its neighbors don't want to be left behind." For years, analysts said Israel's assumed nuclear weapons program would spur its neighbors to develop weapons programs of their own. Ironically, though, Israel will not be the cause of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. "Israel's program was accepted as an accomplished fact some time ago, when the hurdles to acquiring nuclear capability looked a lot higher than they do now," notes Pike. "But in the past 10 years or so, we've seen India, Pakistan and North Korea join the club. Now, it seems, everybody's doing it. Israel made the transition at a time when international norms were tending against nuclear proliferation. The opposite is true now." As Jordan's King Abdullah II has said, "The rules have changed. Everybody's going for nuclear programs." FOR MANY Arab governments, though, the physical threat from Iran is not as great as the symbolic power of its nuclear program. According to Gawdat Baghat, an Egyptian scholar who heads the Political Affairs Department at Indiana University, prestige is at least as much a motive as security. Several years ago, he notes, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said a nuclear program would be a waste of money. This was the continuation of a long-standing policy of refraining from a costly game of catch-up with Israel on the nuclear plane, but also the practical outcome of a wealth of natural resources. Times have changed, though, as have Mubarak's domestic obligations. "With all its natural gas, Egypt doesn't really need nuclear energy very badly right now," Baghat says. "But when you see that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad keeps growing more popular all over the Middle East, and that a major reason for this is his insistence on becoming a nuclear power, you see just how prestigious this is, how much it is a symbol of scientific progress. Mubarak, like other Arab leaders, has to show his people that he is in the race." Egyptians, he says, feel they are the undisputed leaders of the Middle East. So it makes the country's leadership uncomfortable that Iran, their competitor for hegemony in the region, is moving ahead of them. This, Baghat adds, is worse than the fact that Israel has had nuclear reactors operating since the early 1960s. "When Iran makes progress," he says, "it is different than Israel doing so. It might sound funny, but I think of it this way: When somebody you are not very close to becomes rich and buys an expensive car, it doesn't mean much to you. But if your cousin does the same thing, it gets under your skin." Realistically, some of the countries expressing interest in nuclear power may not be able to see such an ambitious, and costly, project through. In Yemen - an impoverished, barren country ranked one of the three most corrupt nations in the world in the recent Transparency International survey - citizens openly mock the promise of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bring nuclear energy to the country, according to regional reports. "I do not believe," says Baghat, "that most Arab countries have the technical infrastructure, financial resources or human resources to build a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, there are strategic reasons for them not to do so." BAGHAT, WHO has written extensively on why Arab states, over the past 40-50 years, have chosen to either pursue or abandon nuclear weapons, notes: "The main reason why they try to start weapons programs is security. And right now, there is no security threat." Despite Iran's aggressive push toward nuclear weapons and its attempts to spread its Shi'ite revolution, Baghat believes Teheran is not likely to go to war against its Muslim neighbors. So, he says, the Sunni states most capable of funding a nuclear weapons program are also the least likely to do so. "There are only five major regional powers: Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a member of NATO, so it does not need nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has very strong security ties with the US. The Saudis know that, if they faced any real threat, the US would come to their aid." That leaves Egypt, which, Baghat points out, "depends very much on US foreign aid. Since [Anwar] Sadat went to Israel in 1977, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid. Without it, Egypt would collapse." If the US were to discover that any of those three countries was using its civilian nuclear program to make weapons, Baghat says, they would "pay a very high price. There is no reason for them to antagonize the US." To be fair, he notes, "we can never be 100% sure. These are not very democratic countries, and there is always a possibility that a madman could come to power. So to be on the safe side, there must be tight supervision from the International Atomic Energy Agency." Similarly, Pike says, "Does Israel need to worry about its neighbors having purely peaceful programs? No. But anybody who thinks that Iran's program is entirely peaceful hasn't been paying attention. And anybody who thinks that a nuclear desalination project [in an Arab country] is going to balance Iran's weapons capability hasn't been outside recently." The first commercial nuclear power plants in the Arab world won't be finished for eight years at least. In that time, presumably, the Iran situation will come to some sort of conclusion, and convince Arab leaders about the direction in which to take their nuclear programs. The coming years will be full of no small amount of nail-biting in Israel as well, Pike predicts. "You would have to be concerned," he says, "that the reason some of these countries have been talking about nuclear power is that the leaders of these countries had called in their military and industrial advisers and said, 'If we had to get weapons, what would it take?' Because, rest assured, they have all done that. There's not a country in the region that hasn't had to weigh its options." Is Israel next? Like the Arab states now weighing the benefits of nuclear power, Israel is interested in increasing its electricity production to meet burgeoning demand. From 1990 to 2000, the country's electricity requirements increased an average of 7 percent. In the next 20 years, the National Infrastructure Ministry estimates, Israel will need to provide twice the amount of electricity used today - already in excess of 47 billion kilowatt-hours per year. Powering today's electricity are billions of shekels worth of coal, crude oil and natural gas, which must be imported. That means a combination of total dependence on foreign sources, high costs and environmental problems, all of which the government would like to relieve rather than exacerbate. In August, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer strongly suggested that nuclear power could be the answer, saying the country was reviving 20-year-old plans for a nuclear power plant in the Negev and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert supported such plans. "The government of Israel is to make a historic decision concerning the building of a nuclear power plant... in the Negev," Ben-Eliezer was quoted as saying. "Given the conditions that have surrounded Israel from the day it was created and its unique geopolitical situation, I believe it is not enough to rely on energy production through conventional means." Certainly, Israel's "unique geopolitical situation" would become even more complex if its neighbors started building nuclear reactors. That this possibility made the government's interest in nuclear energy an urgent matter was confirmed by Gideon Frank, chairman of the board of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the country's highest civilian nuclear authority, who said as much during an international conference in Vienna two weeks ago. Referring to Iran's nuclear program, Frank told the members of the International Atomic Energy Commission that the world body had allowed "gross and consistent non-compliance" from Teheran, and that Israel "can hardly remain oblivious to intensive efforts by some in our region to develop weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign existence and calls for our destruction." Even though the remarks were indirect, the suggestion that Israel would build a nuclear power plant in response to Iran's assumed ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons confirmed the inevitable connection between civilian and military nuclear programs. For Israel, that means some tough questions - about any nuclear facility to be built in the future, and about the country's existing facilities as well. DESPITE HAVING one of the world's most controversial nuclear programs, Israel does not have a nuclear power plant. Whether or not the infamous nuclear facilities in Dimona are producing nuclear weapons, as the rest of the world and most Israelis assume, one thing is clear: It does not produce electricity for our homes. But because, according to foreign reports, it is assumed to be used for the manufacture of weapons-grade plutonium, and because Israel has not ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it may not receive materials from the Nuclear Suppliers Group that would allow it to build a nuclear power plant. In the past few weeks, officials have been lobbying for exemptions to those restrictions, hoping the nuclear development deal that the US recently signed with India - another country that is not a party to the NPT but has nuclear weapons - will serve as a precedent in Israel's favor. Considering that there seems to be a consensus among NSG states against allowing Israel to import nuclear material, even limited exemptions to the non-proliferation rules will be difficult to achieve. But the government is taking its request a step further: While officials say they would open up any future nuclear power plant to international inspectors, as required, they would not do the same for the Dimona reactor. Israel, an Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post, is stressing that it has been "responsible" with its nuclear program since its establishment in the 1950s, and hoping that this will be enough to convince the NSG that Israel poses no threat to regional security. How safe, though, are the country's existing nuclear facilities? To begin with, both the Dimona reactor and the much smaller research reactor at Nahal Sorek south of Rishon Lezion are powered by highly-enriched uranium (HEU). There are about 100 more HEU-type research reactors around the world, but many of them are being converted to low-enriched uranium systems because HEU, being a few steps closer to weapons-grade material, is considered a proliferation threat. The Nahal Sorek reactor, which was donated by the US in 1958 as part of the "Atoms for Peace" program, conducts medical radioactivity experiments and other highly advanced research. It is open not only to international inspections, but to tour groups as well. The Dimona facility, which is not only closed to inspection but kept highly guarded from all public discourse, hosts a national radioactive waste disposal site where radioactive waste from hospitals, research institutions, higher education facilities and factories is stored. Fears that the facility, built clandestinely nearly 50 years ago, was a threat in itself were heightened three years ago when authorities distributed Lugol iodine tablets to residents of cities and Beduin encampments around Dimona, in case of an accidental radiation leak. An Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told the Post that any fears over the safety of either the Sorek or Dimona reactors are unwarranted. "Age is not an issue with these facilities," she said. "The reactors have been refurbished and upgraded several times over the years. In effect, these are not the same reactors that were installed nearly 50 years ago." Regardless, questions about Israel's nuclear program are likely to increase dramatically - whether because of the development of Arab reactors or because of concerns over a civilian power plant in the desert. Five decades after Israel became the first nuclear power in the Middle East, the long-standing status quo is sure to change as the country's "unique geopolitical situation" changes dramatically. Pros, cons and alternatives Advocates and opponents alike can be fanatical in their positions on nuclear energy. Complicating matters for policy-makers is that both sides make valid arguments. Worse still, none of the available alternatives to nuclear power and conventional fossil fuel-driven power has yet proven capable of producing energy on a large enough scale to supersede these options for the near future. Pros: The two biggest benefits of nuclear energy are its low cost and its cleanliness relative to coal, oil and gas-powered energy plants. A nuclear plant generates power in much the same way as most of those old-style plants - by creating steam that spins a turbine - but it does so in a much more efficient manner. The cost of nuclear fuel is also much lower than the cost of coal or oil, and even lower than natural gas. The combination of high operating efficiency and low materials cost is, understandably, attractive to governments. Also, nuclear power plants don't produce the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that fossil fuel-driven power plants produce. As more countries make environmental concerns a larger factor in their energy plans - and as countries committed to the Kyoto protocols seek ways to avoid pollution penalties - that "eco-friendly" benefit becomes extremely enticing. Despite some notorious exceptions, the safety record of nuclear power facilities is also much better than that of their conventional cousins. Cons: Due to their intricate and potentially volatile design, nuclear power plants are much more expensive and often take much longer to build than standard power plants. Also, nuclear foes claim, the lower cost of electricity produced by nuclear plants is achieved in part by subsidies and government funding that is generally not included in the calculation of this cost. So the total savings are, arguably, minimal. Opponents also contend that nuclear energy is not, in fact, better for the environment. In addition to the danger of a catastrophe, such as the infamous Chernobyl disaster, there is the problem of radioactive waste, the byproduct of nuclear energy. Both in enriching uranium for fuel, and in the nuclear fission process that ultimately results in electricity, extraordinarily dangerous waste products are created. Because of the complexity of storage needs for nuclear waste - some of the waste products remain radioactive for thousands of years - finding localities willing to host storage facilities can be a daunting task. Of course, there is also the danger of a peaceful nuclear program leading to a weapons program. Alternatives: None of the available alternatives to the current energy systems offers a perfect solution. Wind power creates no waste products, but requires a large area and provides energy in unstable quantities. Hydroelectric power is extremely efficient and very "clean," but it is nonetheless limited by its environmental impact and by the fact that it can only be used in areas with large flowing water systems. Geothermal power may be an elegant solution harnessing natural steam vents, but it can only be realized in a small number of locations. With free fuel (sunlight), no resulting pollutants and increasing efficiency, solar power is as close to a perfect power source as is available today. Until solar energy can be stored cheaply and in a relatively small area, though, it will not be an economically viable option for more than a fraction of a country's electricity demands. While some or all of these alternatives are relevant choices for the Arab states currently weighing nuclear power, they are unlikely to fully meet the growing electricity demands of those states. Atoms in Arabia Egypt Egypt's nuclear program has taken a roller coaster-like course. It began peacefully in the late 1950s, with American and Russian support for a small research reactor; turned aggressive shortly thereafter, with (failed) attempts to purchase weapons for use against Israel; was frozen after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; was revived a few years later with help from Argentina, which built a 22-megawatt research reactor at Inshas; and is now being revolutionized with the launch of plans for three reactors of up to 3,000 MW total capacity at Al-Daba. The first plant, Egypt's energy minister claims, will be ready in a decade. Jordan Only a few weeks ago, Jordan and the United States signed an accord supporting the Hashemite kingdom's development of nuclear power. Under the agreement, "the two countries will work together to develop requirements for appropriate power reactors, fuel service arrangements, civilian training, nuclear safety, energy technology and other related areas," the US Embassy in Amman said in a statement. In addition to desalinating water, nuclear power would bring a much-needed energy boost to Jordan, which imports all its oil and almost 80 percent of its natural gas. Conversely, the country has an estimated 80,000 tons of uranium available to be mined, and Jordanian officials aim to see nuclear energy produce 30 percent of the country's energy by 2030 and convert the kingdom into an energy exporter. Syria A year ago, President Bashar Assad asserted that his country had no intention of becoming a nuclear power. But in recent months, Syrian officials have sung a different tune, saying that the nuclear option could not be rejected, or even that it was "in our sights." The country's energy needs are increasing, while the industrial infrastructure is growing less and less efficient all the time. Over the past few years, Israeli sources have expressed concern that Syria had been trying to obtain nuclear weapons from the rogue Pakistani nuclear regime. Last month, in a still-murky incident over eastern Syria, Israeli warplanes were alleged to have targeted what may have been a nuclear facility developed with the help of fellow "Axis of Evil" member North Korea. Saudi Arabia Saudi officials have been laying the groundwork for a nuclear program over the past year, making public statements about the right of all states to peaceful nuclear power and holding meetings with neighbors on the importance of investing in nuclear power. Some analysts claim that the Saudis have tried to purchase nuclear weapons from China. Publicly, however, Saudi Arabia is lobbying for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Gulf states The five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (in addition to Saudi Arabia) - have closely followed the Saudis' lead on nuclear energy, investing billions of dollars to pave the way for power plants and pledging entirely peaceful motives. The small Persian Gulf states are said to be extremely concerned by Iran's nuclear program, which is considered at least as much a factor in their interest in atomic energy as the development that such electricity would allow. Ironically, Iran has offered the GCC its help in developing nuclear technology. Yemen A little over a week ago, Yemen signed a deal with an American energy company to build a number of nuclear power plants over the next 10 years, designed to produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity. The country's oil production has dropped from 480,000 barrels a day a few years ago to a current level of 330,000 barrels a day. Algeria Algeria is eager to make use of its uranium deposits, which are estimated to be the 10th largest in the world, to create a nuclear industry that can provide domestic power as well as generate lucrative exports. In January, Algeria signed a cooperation agreement with Russia to build a reactor and train personnel to run it. France has also offered to cooperate on a nuclear project with Algeria, which is trying to promote the idea of a "Mediterranean Union" between southern Europe and North Africa. Tunisia France agreed last December to help Tunisia develop nuclear power and desalination capabilities, although such a program still appears far off for the resource-poor country. Europe is split over nuclear energy Calder Hall crumbled in seconds. Once symbols of progress and might for a nation focused on the future, the four lofty cooling towers at Sellafield, England, were demolished on Saturday after becoming instead a symbol of decay. Fifty-one years after the world's first commercial civil nuclear power plant was constructed, the continent that has embraced nuclear energy the most is also the one that is relegating the technology to history. There are more than 440 nuclear power plants around the globe, supplying about 16% of the world's energy. The highest number of plants is in the United States, where in certain states nuclear energy is an increasingly popular choice. But the countries that rely most heavily on nuclear energy - France, Lithuania, Belgium, etc. - are in Europe. The continent, however, is increasingly divided by an all-or-nothing attitude. In Europe, it seems, countries are either feverishly building new power plants, or furiously tearing them down. Some countries, like England, are doing both, replacing older facilities that are no longer safe or efficient with newer models. For years after the initial surge of interest in nuclear energy, when the atomic age promised endless bounty at minimal cost, countries lost interest in nuclear power as environmental concerns took prominence. Then, in 2002, Finland's parliament made the first decision to build a new nuclear power plant in Western Europe for more than a decade. Ireland at first fell in love with the idea of nuclear energy, moving in 1968 to build a power plant. Thirteen years later, though, having fallen out of love with the idea, the Irish dropped those plans. Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, meanwhile, have all decided not to build new plants, or intend to phase out nuclear power altogether. Austria has not only stamped out any domestic nuclear development but also seeks to ensure that none of its neighbors will build nuclear power plants near its border. Italy has taken the hardest line of all against nuclear power. Shortly after the explosion of Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl sent radioactive fallout across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in 1986, Italy voted to scrap its four nuclear reactors, completing the hasty shut-downs by 1990. Since then, however, Italy has had to import energy - produced by nuclear plants, no less - and seen its energy costs skyrocket. The Netherlands moved to shut down its reactors, but a few years later a new government put that on hold. In Poland, construction of four nuclear power plants was halted halfway through; now, after investing in Lithuania's nuclear power program, the country intends to built a plant of its own within the next 15 years. On the opposite end of the spectrum, France, insisting on self-sufficiency in energy despite lacking the natural resources to accomplish it, has adopted nuclear power so strongly that it derives 78 percent of its energy from nuclear plants. The position of Europe on nuclear energy, then, is not merely ambiguous, it is downright torn. Only time will tell whether Middle East countries, enamored with nuclear power as they are at the moment, will be as excited about their nuclear plans in the future as they are now.

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