nuclear-power-plant.jpgRisk & Security 

The Mysteries of UAE’s Nuclear Program

By Saeed Alwahabi

The United Arab Emirate has announced 60 percent progress in the construction of its first nuclear reactor. Currently, the UAE is the only country in the MENA region to be on track to achieve its nuclear goals.

In 2007, the UAE and six other Gulf Cooperation Council countries decided to initiate their own bilateral agreements with more advanced countries to develop nationwide nuclear programs. Today, only the UAE is showing vital progress in both constructing nuclear facilities and complying with international standards.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 72 reactors were under construction around the world at the end of 2013, the highest number since the end of the Cold War. Over 30 countries are considering a nuclear power program to overcome rising energy demands. Like several of these countries, the UAE lacks the scientific talent and technological know-how to go it alone. It has subsequently signed a bilateral agreement to grow its nuclear program.

Specific scientific challenges include acquiring skilled workers and creating a nuclear base. This concern was made clear when Hamad Alkaabi, a UAE nuclear technology expert, stated “finding skilled workers is among the major challenges…and no existing nuclear technical and industrial base.” This acknowledgment shaped the UAE government’s early policies.

Three policies are at the heart of the success of UAE’s nuclear program: emphasizing energy, establishing governmental agencies, and promoting cooperation agreements. Notably, these factors have enabled the UAE to progress despite their limited scientific development and lack of technical expertise.

The first policy, titled “Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy,” emphasizes the use of nuclear power for energy purposes rather than to propel a nuclear arms race. The policy, which the UAE government released in 2008 underlines two broad strategies. First, the purpose of the program is an energy-oriented project; in the UAE, demand for electricity is likely to rise to more than 40,000 MWs by 2020, reflecting an annual growth rate of roughly 9 percent from 2007 onward. Second, the UAE has kept a low profile when it comes to an arms race as it continues to be dependent on the U.S. for its security. The UAE nuclear program fits with the strategy of the nation’s leaders of being the region’s pioneer in trade, tourism, and—soon—energy.

The second policy establishes governmental agencies that administer the nuclear program. The three state institutions—Khalifa University, Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), and Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR)—are working together to facilitate nuclear energy as a source of electricity by 2017. To establish a generation of national scientists, young Emirati students leave the country every year to complete their study abroad under a scholarship program that is fully funded by the ENEC. Khalifa University is designed to be an ultimate feeder of nuclear technology experts and researchers in the country. As a result, the first generation of 46 Emirati nuclear engineer graduates have began working at nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, now that the UAE is building its human capital, it founded the ENEC to manage the nuclear program. As a result, the number of ENEC employees increased from 64 in 2009 to 1200 in 2014. Finally, to comply with international standards and ensure safety, FANR sets regulations and serves as a tool to enforce compliance.

The third policy enables the UAE to be dynamic, internationalizing its profile through cooperation agreements. For instance, from 2008 to 2014, the UAE signed 27 cooperation agreements with 11 countries to advance its nuclear program. The UAE was the last country to sign Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which enables significant transfers of nuclear material, equipment, and/or its components. Moreover, aside from the significance of ratifying international agreements for its nuclear program, the UAE became the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an organization of 163 countries, and has taken the lead in the establishment of an international uranium bank. UAE also donated $10 million to the creation of a bank by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Indeed, the road to the first Arab nuclear program is still a dream, but Emiratis are showing concrete progress and are implementing policies to overcome challenges on their way to their destination.



Saeed Alwahabi is a fellow at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs working to pursue his master degree in public administration. Saeed has reported for several newspapers in Saudi Arabia including Alwatan, Okaz, and Alsharq. You can reach him on Twitter: @s_alwahabi.

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