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Mahmoud Nasreldin

10 Obstacles Facing the Implementation of Arab Nuclear Projects

SummaryMany Arab states have expressed their interests and are actively moving towards a nuclear infrastructure to meet their energy needs. However, they have encountered numerous difficulties: ambiguous political positions, the absence of an integrated strategy, financial difficulties, site selection difficulties, scarcity of specialized labour, weak national industry, nuclear accidents at the international level, the absence of joint Arab projects, ineffective performance of joint Arab bodies concerned with strategic implementation, and avoiding foreign criticism. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action opens the door for peaceful uranium enrichment, so will these efforts be unilateral or joint Arab schemes?  

A paper by:  Dr. Mahmoud Nasreldini

The crisis created by the sharp rise of oil prices during the first decade of this century led to the so-called second nuclear renaissance. Many countries, including Arab states, announced their intentions and decisions to use nuclear energy to generate electricity. Even countries that had a negative perception of nuclear power have announced their own nuclear projects and have taken steps in this regard. This development comes because of several factors, including:

- Continued economic and population growth and the increased demand for electricity and fresh water.
- The increase in oil prices and its rising demand internally and externally. To give an example, 23% of Saudi oil production in the first seven months of 2014 was consumed by the Kingdom, whereas the quantity of oil exported in 2013 was equivalent to quantities exported in 1980. It is also noted that the quantities exported in the year 2009 were the lowest in the Kingdom's history when internal consumption accounted for 27% of total production.
- Iran's entry into the nuclear arena and its pursuit of an integrated nuclear program, starting with the extraction and enrichment of uranium, the production of nuclear fuel and heavy water, and building the reactor utilizing this water and producing plutonium.
- The declared readiness of some foreign countries to cooperate with some Arab countries in building nuclear power plants.

With the growing number of world countries that requested assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in implementing its nuclear power programs, the IAEA developed a document that included 19-steps for countries intending to build nuclear power plants (nuclear legislation, regulatory body, research reactor, etc.). Yet, a number of Third World countries, including some Arab countries, have not given this document much attention and decided to go ahead in building their stations.

Current political, security and economic circumstances (referred to as the Arab spring) lead to a change in the priorities of some Arab countries. Their officials no longer mention these projects, while other countries continued their commitment to the construction of nuclear power plants and took tangible steps as indicated below.

The United Arab Emirates has two entities that follows nuclear activities, namely:
- The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), whose mission is to secure a reliable source of electricity using clean nuclear energy. The UAE hopes to establish four reactors that would produce a quarter of the country's electricity needs by 2020.
- The Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) is the regulatory body in the UAE.

In the Arab Republic of Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak decided to revive the old project of Dabaa, where hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on feasibility studies, selection of the appropriate location and technologies. Recent events in the country delayed the initiation of the project. Current authorities confirmed their commitment to the project and its implementation in the Dabaa area. There are currently four bodies dealing with nuclear activities in Egypt, namely:
- Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA)
- Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (EAEA), which owns two research reactors contributing to providing specialized Egyptian manpower which will supply the nuclear project with the required expertise
- Nuclear Materials Authority (NMA)
- Nuclear and Radiation Control Authority (NRRA), a body established by Law No. 7 of 2010.

As for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the nuclear law was amended in 2007 and tangible steps were taken towards building a research reactor that would contribute to the development of Jordanian human resources needed for the construction of a nuclear power plant. "Amra" was the designated location for the nuclear power plant site, located 70 km east of Amman. An agreement was signed with the Russian Federation on March 24, 2015 for the construction of two 1,000 MW power plants for a total of $10bn. Under the new law, two bodies were established, namely:
- The Jordanian Nuclear Energy Authority (JAEC), whose task is to secure nuclear power and reduce dependence on fossil fuels
- Jordanian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (JNRC)

Other remaining Arab countries have not taken tangible steps towards implementing and building nuclear power plants. Some have even retracted from the nuclear trend, as with Kuwait who revoked the establishment of a nuclear power agency. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates, the remainder of Arab nuclear programs encountered various difficulties, summarized herein:

1-Ambiguous political position
It is a well-known fact that nuclear energy relates to politics; therefore, the decision of a country to move towards nuclear energy as a source of generating electricity must be issued by the highest authority in the country. Many observers are of the opinion that the political decision in a number of Arab countries was hesitant and indecisive halting the move towards the nuclear option.

2 – The absence of an integrated strategy
The League of Arab states Council's made many decision at the summit level of moving towards utilizing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (Riyadh and Damascus summits in particular). Yet, the majority of Arab countries refrained from developing national strategies for the peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Little effort was made in linking national policies of Arab countries with the Arab strategy proposed by the Arab Atomic Energy Agency and adopted by the Arab Summit of Kuwait in 2009.

3 - Financial difficulties
Establishing nuclear power plants comes at a high-cost, requiring long-term investment. Securing and spending billions of dollars and waiting for a period of six to ten years before commencing the plant's activities is an exhausting issue for countries that do not enjoy liquid assets and a strong economy. This stalled states in implementing such projects on the ground. Generally speaking, to overcome financial difficulties joint cooperation agreements are constructed between the state owning the project and the foreign contractor who builds the nuclear power plant. In this context, Rosatom aims to execute the Jordanian nuclear project via joint funding (close to 50%) and plans to implement the Egyptian project after securing a Russian loan that covers a good proportion of the reactors cost. A Rosatom official informed the author of this paper that Russia plans to sell energy whether it build stations on Russian soil or in other countries. This explains the company's tendency to invest in nuclear power plants in foreign countries such as Turkey and other Arab countries

4. Site selection difficulties
Some states face difficulties in selecting the location of a nuclear power plant due to geological, geographic or population reasons. In Egypt, some pressure was exerted to abandon the "Dabaa site" which is one of the best sites available in the Republic. The site was chosen in the 1980s after being studied for many years by a foreign company. Jordan, which overlooks the Red Sea, has been forced to abandon a proposed location by the sea due to the limited seashores in the Aqaba region and the large tourism projects in the area. Jordan was forced to abandon another site due to the difficulty of delivering fresh water (following desalination) and adopted the selection of a site in inner-Jordan, where the reactor will be cooled by a closed water circuit and using refined water similar to some nuclear stations in the United States.

5. Scarcity of specialized labour
Teaching nuclear engineering with the absence of a research reactor remains a highly theoretical and incomplete action. Alexandria University may have been one of the leading Arab universities to teach nuclear engineering but found a limited turnout of students due to the absence of a real job market. Nuclear engineering departments were established in some other Arab universities, including Jordan which signed an agreement to build a research reactor that will become operational in the next few years.

Nuclear energy agencies and available research reactors have contributed to cultivating nuclear energy specialists, yet the shortage remains apparent since there are few available research reactors to develop proper Arab expertise. The importance of an existing nuclear research reactor in countries planning to establish nuclear power reactors was emphasized in the IAEA document outlining the 19 steps necessary to build a nuclear reactor. However, a number of Arab countries have neglected and turned instead towards constructing and operating nuclear stations with foreign manpower.

The six to ten year construction period of a nuclear power plant is sufficient to empower specialized human resources to keep pace with the construction and operation stages. States can subsequently rely on national human resources developed in operating the facility and ensuring the highest degree of nuclear safety. Regrettably, within the so-called Joint Arab Action scheme, efforts made in the field of nuclear security surpass these in the field of nuclear energy. This may be due to a substantial international interest in nuclear security, thus resulting in considerable aid to combat security threats. This does not justify the intense international focus on nuclear security activities which is to the detriment of greater nuclear science; especially in the absence of nuclear materials in many Arab countries.

6. Weak national industry
The existence of a national industry capable of partially contributing to the construction of nuclear power plants reduces the cost paid by the state to foreign companies, since the construction of such plants requires high-level technology in addition to high quality raw materials (e.g. cement and steel). A weak national industry in the majority of Arab countries has increased dependence on foreign entities and increased the flow of funds overseas rather than injecting these funds into the national economy.

7. Nuclear accidents at the international level
The Arab position towards nuclear power stations was affected by nuclear accidents taking place worldwide. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 led to postponement, if not canceling, the "Dabaa project" in Egypt, in addition to deserting the Moroccan project to build a nuclear plant. The Fukushima incident has had a direct impact on many countries position towards nuclear energy internationally as well as on the Arab level. Kuwait, for example, canceled its decision to establish a national commission for nuclear energy; additionally, Arab public opinion opposing nuclear stations has increased after the incident which may lead other countries to review its positions towards nuclear power stations in the future.

8- Absence of joint Arab projects
As reported earlier, complications facing Arab nuclear programs could be summarized as follows:
- the lack of adequate sites, especially lands overlooking seas or a water channels
- financial challenges that do not allow countries to engage in long-term investment of huge sums to build electronuclear plants
- shortage of available and specialized labor.

Exercising joint Arab projects is a practical option for a number of reasons: it ensures the nuclear plant is built in a suitable location within the Arab region, many Arab states enjoy financial liquidity easing the investment dimension, and human resources would be selected from other Arab countries, thus allowing the joint operation of the facility.

The Arab Strategy for the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy called for the establishment of joint Arab projects. The invitation was based on a joint proposal by the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a closed session in the 2006 Riyadh summit. The strategy proposed other joint Arab projects such as the establishment of the Arab Fund for Natural Uranium and the establishment of a department in the Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA) that serves as the technical arm of regulatory bodies in the various Arab countries, which would save these countries a great deal of financial and human costs as well as unifying the nuclear safety standards in these countries. Fortunately, the IAEA called for the establishment of such centers at a later stage. However, the implementation of the strategy on the national has not considered the notion of joint Arab projects, where attention was directed towards small research projects of limited impact.

9- Ineffective performance of joint Arab bodies concerned with strategies implementation
The implementation of the Arab Strategy for Peaceful Uses (as well as any strategy) is a national responsibility. Each country must develop its national policy which is compatible with the Arab strategy as well as its developmental and economic needs. The joint Arab action bodies (the General Secretariat of the League of Arab States and AAEA) should keep pace with the implementation of the strategy, should push forward the implementation of joint Arab projects and should organize activities appropriate to the needs of various member states in the field of nuclear energy. In view of the structure of the General Secretariat of the League of Arab States, tasks pertaining to nuclear issues were assigned to AAEA, which does not have sufficient financial resources nor has received capable human resources provided by member states. As a result, Arab joint projects have been reduced to projects implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), particularly in the field of nuclear security and nuclear safety.

10- Avoiding foreign criticism
It is clear that there is a permanent desire within some Arab officials of not conducting any activity that may raise some external criticism even if NPT allows it. The events preceding and accompanying the invasion of Iraq and the farce of dismantling Gaddafi's nuclear program led to the creation of an atmosphere of fear felt by Arab countries leading Arab officials to decline any peaceful nuclear projects, fearing Western queries pertaining to the peacefulness of the project.

As an example, we sight the discussion of establishing the Arab Fund for Natural Uranium (ANUF) which was addressed in a closed meeting in 2008 attended by members of AAEA General Conference (namely Arab ministers involved in nuclear energy), where the proposal was rejected and never discussed. On a later stage, the former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa, was enthusiastic about the project and approved it and requested AAEA to follow it up. Indeed. The concept was included in the Arab Strategy for the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy adopted by the Arab Summit in 2009; however AAEA ignored it and halted studying project feasibility and possible implementation.

In conclusion
The nuclear agreement between Iran and the six major powers re-opens the door to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This agreement demonstrates that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in particular Article IV, allows for enriching uranium for peaceful purposes. The world market for enriched uranium will certainly expand and the Arab countries' need for nuclear fuel will increase. The important question that needs to be addresses, will Arab states proceed to acquire its own uranium enrichment program and secure its reactor nuclear fuel via individual or joint Arab schemes?


* Paper presented at the Annual Nuclear Forum Meeting held by the Arab Institute for Security Studies (2016). 

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