Spread of Nuclear Capability Is Feared|
Global Interest in Energy May Presage A New Arms Race
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008
VIENNA -- At least 40 developing countries from the Persian Gulf region to Latin America have recently approached U.N. officials here to signal interest in starting nuclear power
programs, a trend that concerned proliferation experts say could provide the
building blocks of nuclear arsenals in some of those nations.
At least half a dozen countries have also said in the past four years that
they are specifically planning to conduct enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear
fuel, a prospect that could dramatically expand the global supply of plutonium
and enriched uranium, according to U.S. and international nuclear officials and
Much of the new interest is driven by economic considerations, particularly
the soaring cost of fossil fuels. But for some Middle Eastern states with ready
access to huge stocks of oil or natural gas, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the investment in
nuclear power appears to be linked partly to concerns about a future regional
arms race stoked in part by Iran's alleged interest in such an arsenal, the officials
"We are concerned that some countries are moving down the nuclear [weapons]
path in reaction to the Iranians," a senior U.S. government official who tracks
the spread of nuclear technology said in an interview. He declined to speak on
the record because of diplomatic sensitivities. "The big question is: At what
point do you reach the nuclear tipping point, when enough countries go nuclear
that others decide they must do so, too?"
Although the United Arab Emirates has a proven oil reserve of 100 billion
barrels, the world's sixth-largest, in January it signed a deal with a French
company to build two nuclear reactors. Wealthy neighbors Kuwait and Bahrain are
also planning nuclear plants, as are Libya, Algeria and Morocco in North Africa
and the kingdom of Jordan.
Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, last year
announced plans to purchase a nuclear reactor, which it says is needed to
produce electricity; it is one of 11 Middle Eastern states now engaged in
starting or expanding nuclear power programs.
Meanwhile, two of Iran's biggest rivals in the region, Turkey and Egypt, are moving forward with ambitious nuclear projects. Both
countries abandoned any pursuit of nuclear power decades ago but are now on
course to develop seven nuclear power plants -- four in Egypt and three in
Turkey -- over the next decade.
Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, told a recent gathering
of Middle Eastern and nonproliferation experts that his country's decision was
unrelated to Iran's nuclear activities. But he acknowledged that commercial
nuclear power "does give you technology and knowledge," and he warned that a
nuclear arms race may be inevitable unless the region's leaders agree to ban
"We continue to take the high road, but there isn't much oxygen there, and it
is very lonely," Fahmy told the gathering in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He added a
prediction: "Without a comprehensive nuclear accord, you will have a
proliferation problem in the Middle East, and it will be even worse in 10 years
than it is today."
Many countries involved in nuclear expansion have stressed their peaceful
intentions. Some, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, publicly vowed
never to pursue uranium enrichment or fuel reprocessing -- technologies that can
be used to create fissile materials for nuclear weapons. But some arms-control
experts say the sudden interest cannot be fully explained by rising oil
"This is not primarily about nuclear energy. It's a hedge against Iran," said
Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear policy and
author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons." "They're
starting their engines. It takes decades to build a nuclear infrastructure, and
they're beginning to do it now. They're saying, 'If there's going to be an arms
race, we're going to be in it.' "'90 Percent' Is Deterrence
Although U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Iran halted its
research into making nuclear weapons five years ago, the Islamic republic still
seeks to make enriched uranium with centrifuges at its vast underground facility
at Natanz. It is now operating about 3,000 centrifuges and plans to increase the
number to 50,000.
While Iran insists that the uranium will be used only to make electricity,
the United States and its European allies have sought to dissuade Tehran from
pursuing the technology by pushing ever-tougher sanctions through the U.N. Security Council. Iran's neighbors, convinced that a
nuclear-armed Tehran is now likely, are keeping their own options open, nuclear
Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the U.N.'s International Atomic
Energy Agency and a winner with the IAEA of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for his work preventing the spread of nuclear
weapons, has likened the pursuit of "latent" nuclear capability to buying an
"You don't really even need to have a nuclear weapon," ElBaradei said at a
recent international conference of security officials in Munich. "It's enough to
buy yourself an insurance policy by developing the capability, and then sit on
it. Let's not kid ourselves: Ninety percent of it is insurance, a
The Middle East's renewed interest in nuclear power is part of a global trend
that began around 2004, as prices for fossil fuels began to rise. Before that,
commercial nuclear development had remained relatively flat since 1986, when a
massive fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine widely spread radioactive
contamination in history's worst commercial nuclear power accident.
But now, with oil supplies tightening and prices soaring, nuclear power is
being viewed in a different light, said Alan McDonald, an IAEA official who
coordinates the agency's programs on nuclear energy. McDonald said he thinks
there is a logical economic argument for developing a domestic nuclear industry,
even if a nation's oil reserves are measured by the tanker-load.
"Why would these Gulf states want to go nuclear? Because they know their oil
will only become more valuable as global demand increases," McDonald said. "It
may be more cost-effective to sell oil to Americans driving SUVs than to burn it
The IAEA officially encourages commercial nuclear development under policies
backed by successive U.S. administrations since the 1950s. It also provides
technical and legal assistance to any country that wants a nuclear power
But IAEA officials say they have never previously seen such widespread
interest in starting a domestic nuclear power industry. While officials declined
to detail their correspondence with specific countries, the list of the newly
interested includes several African countries, such as Nigeria and Namibia, and
at least half a dozen former Soviet republics that are embracing new Western
designs to replace less-reliable Soviet nuclear plants.Programs Can Be
Nuclear weapons experts say commercial nuclear power plants, by themselves,
pose relatively little proliferation risk, although they are frequently
mentioned as possible targets for terrorist attacks. But nuclear power can give
a country the technological expertise and infrastructure that could become the
foundation for a clandestine weapons program.
Such covert programs can be successfully hidden for years, as was
demonstrated in recent months by U.S. and Israeli allegations that Syria was
building a secret plutonium production reactor near the desert town of Al Kibar.
Plutonium is an efficient fuel for nuclear explosions, as well as for power
Both India and Pakistan built nuclear devices using an industrial infrastructure
built ostensibly for nuclear power. Taiwan and South Korea conducted weapons research under cover of civil power
programs but halted the work after being confronted by the United States.
A particular concern is rising interest in nuclear enrichment and
reprocessing, the commercial enterprise that creates nuclear fuel and then,
after its use, separates plutonium from the spent fuel. The business has long
been dominated by the United States, Russia and a consortium of European nations.
But since 2004, uranium-producing countries such as Namibia, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, as well as close U.S. allies such as Canada and Australia,
have sought to develop their own enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. All
of these nations are seeking to cash in on the future growth in nuclear power
Canada's push for expanded enrichment capacity has already prompted private
but intense clashes with the Bush administration, officials said.
"They're all rethinking enrichment, even countries that did it in the past
and gave it up," said a senior IAEA official who monitors fuel-cycle
development, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be
identified by name. "They already mine uranium and sell it, and now they realize
they could make a lot more money if they enrich it."
While no one forecasts a nuclear-armed Canada or Australia, the change could
lead to more nuclear materials being transported around the world, among
countries in nearly every region with heightened nuclear expertise.
"People stand up and pay attention when you talk about enrichment and the
fuel cycle," said the senior U.S. government official who tracks nuclear
proliferation. "That's the long pole in the tent" in the acquisition of a
nuclear arsenal. He added that, while the extensive system of IAEA inspections
and monitoring for such programs is meant to prevent misuse, "that only holds up
to the point where the country decides to kick the IAEA out."
Original article: Washington Post
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