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Nuclear Concerns in Unstable Mideast

Author: Jonathan Pearl, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, 2010-2011
May 23, 2011

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Though it remains to be seen whether the disaster at Fukushima will slow down global nuclear energy development (Slate), the past decade has represented something of a nuclear renaissance.

Nowhere has this trend been more apparent than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Since 2007, at least ten MENA states have signed some form of nuclear cooperation agreement with at least one supplier. Overall, fourteen MENA states have decided to exercise their rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by taking at least preliminary steps toward developing nuclear power. This list includes the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Libya, and Iran.

The motivations for these programs are diverse. Many of these states have legitimate energy and water needs, for which they see nuclear power as part of the solution (electricity and waste heat [PDF] produced by nuclear facilities can be used to desalinate water). Others may be driven, at least in part, by lingering fears over whether Iran's nuclear program has a clandestine military dimension. Israel's program, which has existed since the 1950s, does not appear to be driving the region's current interest in nuclear power.

Iran's nuclear energy program is arguably the most advanced in the region. According to Iranian officials, Tehran's first commercial reactor at Bushehr could be connected to Iran's national electricity grid as soon as July 2011. The Russian firm Atomstroyexport reports that the Bushehr reactor has been operating since May 10. Meanwhile, Tehran remains in noncompliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN Security Council demands about certain other aspects of its nuclear activities. As a result, the Security Council has leveled four rounds of sanctions against Tehran since 2006.

Fears of regional proliferation do not end at Iran's borders. Syria is widely suspected of having attempted to covertly build, with North Korean help, a nuclear reactor at its Dair Alzour site (the site was destroyed by Israel in 2007). Only a few years earlier, Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi disbanded a long-running though largely inept covert program of his own.

Legal, civilian nuclear development is moving forward in other MENA states. According to media and industry reports, the UAE is partnering with suppliers to meet its goal of having four commercial reactors online by 2020, and Jordan is working with partners to complete a five-megawatt research reactor by 2015 and at least one commercial reactor by 2020. Other states in the region could pursue similar initiatives over the coming twenty years.

Nuclear Power and Unstable Regimes

However, many of the same regimes that have signed some form of nuclear agreement with a foreign supplier (eg, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Bahrain) have already been toppled or face serious domestic threats to regime survival. Other states in the region such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are relatively more stable, have witnessed their share of domestic protests and are increasingly concerned about their future.

Partly as a result of these developments and Japan's Fukushima disaster, Washington's push to sign cooperation agreements with and win billion-dollar nuclear contracts from MENA states appears to be on hold. It is unclear whether other nuclear-supplier states will follow suit, however, as well as whether any pause in activity will be accompanied by reflection over how to protect against similar risks associated with any future domestic chaos. Yet both steps are critical for strengthening nuclear security.

During times of domestic upheaval or war, elements of national infrastructure--from oil wells to office buildings--often become prime targets for sabotage or theft. Major nuclear facilities, including nuclear power plants, may one day become the targets of such actions. If nuclear facilities are sabotaged in some future conflict, clouds of burning oil could be replaced by highly radioactive plumes that contaminate civilian population centers and their water and food supplies.

[I]f major nuclear facilities are overrun in the midst of domestic chaos, they may be occupied, sabotaged, or the materials they house stolen and sold to criminal elements, thus increasing the threat of radiological or nuclear terrorism.

Similarly, if major nuclear facilities are overrun in the midst of domestic chaos, the materials they house could be stolen and sold to criminal elements, thus increasing the threat of radiological or nuclear terrorism. This latter threat of theft is a major concern today with respect to Pakistan, and has been a motivating force behind nearly twenty years of U.S. efforts to secure nuclear materials and facilities in the former Soviet Union.

Three Steps to Strengthen Nuclear Security

Revolutions are rarely followed by order, and the absence of order presents a grave threat to nuclear security. Yet there are no U.S. or international contingency plans to respond to potential threats to major nuclear facilities during times of chaotic political transition. The Obama administration can take three steps to greatly strengthen nuclear security in the region and globally.

First, Washington should seek the cooperation of other nuclear suppliers to expand the reported U.S. moratorium on nuclear deal-making with MENA states to all suppliers. This moratorium should be continued until events in the region settle down, with case-by-case exceptions made for critical items like medical isotopes. The Obama administration should then work with other nuclear suppliers to establish objective standards for determining the relative political stability of those seeking nuclear cooperation, as well as their domestic capacities for protecting key nuclear installations. These factors should act as guidelines for all future cooperation.

Second, the Obama administration should continue to work with nuclear suppliers to strengthen existing guidelines for global nuclear cooperation. At a minimum, suppliers must finally put aside their resistance to commonsense steps like requiring technology recipients to accept additional nuclear safeguards in the form of the Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreements with the IAEA. The United States should also continue to push for the significantly more unpopular step of banning the transfer of proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing technology to any state that does not already possess it, offsetting this controversial initiative with determined efforts to further develop multilateral fuel-cycle facilities and ensure adequate and affordable fuel supplies to states that abide by their nonproliferation commitments.

Finally, the administration and foreign nuclear suppliers must accept that even the best conceived precautionary measures can fail, in part because governments seen as relatively stable can suddenly collapse. If domestic political upheaval leaves critical nuclear sites at great risk, it may one day be necessary to put boots on the ground to guard these facilities. To prepare for such an eventuality, Washington should take the lead in drafting a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the creation of a nuclear security rapid reaction force, which could be deployed during times of emergency to protect endangered nuclear facilities. While the mandate of such a force would need to be strictly limited, it would also need to be robust enough to help avert nuclear disaster.

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