Non-Proliferation Through Fuel Cooperation

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Nuclear Abolition News | IDN

Viewpoint by ULRICH KÜHN*

HAMBURG (IDN) - Middle East: The year is 2022. A growing need for energy is putting strain on three major actors in the region. There is Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt, democratic but turmoil-plagued post-Assad Syria, and the military junta reigning in Saudi Arabia. Back in 2012, these states had started to realign their national energy policies. The common goal was to add a nuclear component to the mix within the next decade. Their motivations range from the general need to foster sustainable growth and to satisfy the thirst for energy of fast growing populations, to specific desalination needs.

Although they have made a fortune via technology sales and the construction of nuclear power plants, the countries of the slowly declining First World voice growing concerns about the safety and security of nuclear facilities and materials in the region. Furthermore, these regional players have not excluded the option of uranium enrichment as part of their national fuel cycles. The possibility of mushrooming clandestine nuke programs puzzles western analysts. Non-proliferation is the chief concern of the first female U.S. President. Another case like Iran, which was stopped on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, could cause havoc in the region.

Meanwhile, the League of Arab States criticizes western proliferation concerns as interference in their internal affairs. The civil use of nuclear energy is a right common to all signatories of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), the League argues. Any move of the 'West' to infringe upon this right could lead key Middle Eastern states to withdraw from the NPT. 2022 could herald the end of the global non-proliferation regime.

The Future Has Already Begun

What reads like fiction is already becoming reality. The prolonged and increasingly heated debate about the Iranian nuclear program has diverted attention away from the fact that 14 states in the Middle East have announced plans to embark on civilian nuclear programs.

Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced the launch of civil nuclear programs as early as 2006. Analysts agree that Egypt's motivation is largely economical and spurred on by a rapidly growing population and declining national oil production. Cairo invited tenders for the construction of its first nuclear plant in August 2010. Despite the Egyptian revolution, the envisioned Al Dabaa reactor could go on stream as early as 2022.

The rationale behind the GCC's announcement is far more influenced by Saudi strategic deliberations than by structural market pressures in the Gulf States. As Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal noted: “Iran['s] ... ambition to acquire nuclear weapons has changed the strategic realities of the region." Further statements by the Prince were rather more alarming: "What I suggest for Saudi Arabia and for the other Gulf states . . . is that we must study carefully all the options, including the option of acquiring weapons of mass destruction."

The unfolding race for nuclear energy in the region – be it economically or strategically rooted – becomes even more precarious in light of a lack of international control. Here is the good news: all states of the region, except Israel, adhere to the principles of the NPT regime and have signed and ratified a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

That's as far as the good news goes. Only six countries of the region (Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Turkey, and UAE) have signed and ratified the more intrusive Additional Protocol of the UN watchdog. Seven states, including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Syria stay away from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Four more states lack membership to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, again with Egypt, Iran, and Syria missing.

The same applies to the Modified Small Quantities Protocol, this time with the positive exception of Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar. To hit rock bottom, as few as nine states are parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety and not a single one has signed and ratified the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Clearly, the region’s track record is poor when it comes to safety, verifiability and transparency.

Meanwhile America's policy on the region is inconsistent. Washington guarantees the security of the Israeli State but is only lukewarm in its support for a zone free from Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. Economically the U.S. is dependent on the region's oil, but its sanctions target Iran, the world's third-largest oil producer. Capitol Hill lawmakers would like to see the Arab Spring achieve fruition, supported by sustained economic growth. At the same time the U.S. security community warns of the increasing dangers of a nuclear Middle East. Finally, Washington is committed to halting the Iranian nuclear program by all means necessary, but is unwilling to address the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, U.S.-led initiatives to counter proliferation such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Partnership, and the Nuclear Security Summits fall short of establishing a global norm. Washington's strategy is largely bound to the rationale of 'coalitions of the willing' or otherwise exclusive clubs. Barack Obama's "Global Zero" postulate has so far not changed U.S. policy.

An approach, capable of coping with the emerging economic challenges in the Middle East seems to be missing. What is worse, Washington’s unbalanced agenda could clash with the interests of its key allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey if those states were to go nuclear without opening their programs to established international regimes.

If Washington fails to find a consistent policy that can bridge its own non-proliferation concerns and the region's economic demands, would international institutions then jump in and sort out the mess? The answer is a definite 'maybe'.

The IAEA should be the optimal institution to tackle the problems described. However, diverging perceptions about the political independence of the IAEA have shed negative light on the organization's credibility. In particular, the makeup of the Agency's Board of Governors – which mainly consists of Western nuclear supplier states – raises doubts and questions about the Agency's ability to act as an honest broker.

An additional multilateral option under UN auspices is the ongoing struggle to raise support for a 2012 conference on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Yet the main actors concerned have so far tended to dismiss the possibility of debating links between security and economic matters at this conference and would rather focus first and foremost on military aspects. What is more, the inequality of the United Nations' system, which is particularly evident on nuclear issues, speaks against the UN as a trailblazer.

Fresh Thinking

What if America's non-proliferation policy fails in the Middle East? What if international institutions are blocked from addressing the issue? And what if an increase in national nuclear programs leads to heightened insecurity in the region? Answering the region's problems will require fresh thinking and an effort to involve the region's emerging powers constructively. But first of all the region needs to develop an approach that is genuinely its own.

The core of a possible solution is a multinational nuclear fuel bank, located in the Middle East, in which all participating states are equal partners. Such a fuel bank could secure the supply of national power plants with low-enriched uranium (LEU).

Two major reasons speak in favor of such an arrangement. The first derives from the insight that a multinationalization makes great sense in economic and scientific terms. Opting for a cooperative approach would limit financial burdens. Instead of having each state strive for its own uranium-enrichment and spent fuel-reprocessing facilities, states could opt for voluntary self-restraint and dedicate these sensitive and costly processes to the (shared) responsibility of a regional agency. A restructured Arab Atomic Energy Agency could instead take on this task.

Long-term contracts, supplied by regional uranium ore producers (e.g. Jordan) would have to guarantee a non-discriminatory policy and should be stocked with mutual assurance mechanisms. Potential gains would include reduced spending, mutual accountability, and confidence through local ownership. Furthermore, attached laboratories and a potential 'Middle East Nuclear Research Center' could become a local hub for badly needed knowledge transfer to the region.

The second argument for multinational cooperation is reassurance. As Max Weber has put it "'politics' . . . means striving to share power". But sharing power means also increased reassurance about the others' capabilities. Almost no other region in the world is more characterized by suspicion and mistrust than the Middle East. A shared regional arrangement would therefore not inflame proliferation, since no state of the region would like to see one of its neighbors involved in shady nuclear activities.

From a purely technical point of view, by supplying states with LEU, the proliferation-relevant breakout potential of states would be diminished. To address the critical 'back end' of the fuel cycle, used fuel rods should stay under the agency's authority. The secure transfer of spent nuclear fuel to storage and disposal facilities, together with the facilities' safety, would be part of its portfolio. An equally transparent and rigorous bookkeeping system could serve as security in case of any reasonable suspicion of clandestine diversion. Participating states would also need to provide the agency with a mandate for intrusive verification, possibly including mutual on-site inspections.

One aspect still in need of clarification is a robust link to the international non-proliferation arena. The IAEA should be granted the right to monitor the agency’s most sensitive operations, namely uranium enrichment, reprocessing of spent fuel, and spent fuel disposal and storage.

Start Regional, Go Global!

Opting for a fully self-regulating regional approach would help to solve some of the most pressing quandaries of the Middle East. On top of that, a successful energy initiative could ultimately serve as a model for other conflict-ridden regions.

Regional nuclear cooperation has already achieved some remarkable results. The European EURATOM model brought together erstwhile war parties Germany and France as early as 1957. Further lessons can be drawn from South America, where regional power Brazil shares a binational nuclear agency with its former adversary Argentina. In Southeast Asia, a future regional system could help overcome tensions on the Korean peninsula, perhaps including China and Japan as guarantors of regional stability. A cooperative solution to the India-Pakistan divide – though hard to imagine right now – is even conceivable in the long run.

The world's nascent economic powerhouses cannot wait for the system of international institutions to change. If a global regulation mechanism is missing, the regions, and their emerging powers, have to develop their own instruments. Though, in the case of the Middle East, this might mean acknowledging Iran as an emerging power.

* Ulrich Kühn is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) and was awarded United Nations Fellow on Disarmament 2011. This article appears in the Mach 2012 issue of Global Perspectives. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 27, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Ulrich Kühn | Credit: IFSH

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