Emirates' Nuclear Islands

Salahodeen Abdul-Kafi
March 30, 2011

Submitted as coursework for Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011

Fig. 1: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation logo.

In December 2009, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced an agreement with a South Korean consortium to build four nuclear power plants on the island by 2020. [1] This agreement faced no disagreements from the United Nations, which recently applied sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. The main purpose of this report is to find the answer for two important questions: why is the UAE pursuing a nuclear power program, and why is the discourse surrounding the UAE's nuclear program strikingly different than that surrounding Iran's nuclear program?

First, let us address the reasoning behind the UAE's interest in nuclear energy. The UAE is a small country in the Persian Gulf that has a population of around 5 million (2). More important, however, is the fact that the UAE has the 6th largest proven reserve of oil (97.8 Billion Barrels), as well as the 7th largest proven reserve of natural gas (6.07 trillion cu m) in the world (2). The UAE clearly has enough oil and natural gas to provide electricity for their 5 million inhabitants for a significant period of time. A quick check of worldwide uranium reserves reveals that the UAE does not have a major reserve of Uranium (3). So why would the UAE ever invest in expensive nuclear reactors that require imported fuel? Well, to answer this question, we turn to the reasoning provided by the UAE policy on nuclear energy, which outlined the following:

An initial study determined that national annual peak demand for electricity is likely to rise to more than 40,000 megawatts by 2020, reflecting a cumulative annual growth rate of about nine percent from 2007. At the same time, natural gas production in the UAE can only support current levels of power consumption.[2] Thus, even with adjustments to account for the worldwide economic slowdown, the projected demand is well beyond current capacity. Imported coal is not strategically viable, nor environmentally acceptable. In a study, the UAE looked at numerous types of electricity options, and found nuclear as the most feasible of the options available to the emirate:

"In assessing its options for meeting future electricity demand, the UAE evaluated a comprehensive list of options in addition to nuclear energy, including natural gas-fired power plants, crude oil-fired power plants, and coalfired power plants, as well as alternative and renewable technologies such as waste-to-energy, solar, and wind. Headto-head comparisons between these technologies demonstrated the benefits of nuclear energy as a cost-competitive and environmentally friendly form of base-load power generation"[4]

This explanation makes a reasonable argument for nuclear energy, but the explanation that natural gas supplies would be sufficient for only half of the UAE's power consumption in 2020 does not make sense, given the reserves of natural gas that exists in the country. So why did the UAE conclude that natural gas production was not sufficient for their escalating electricity demand? Well, to answer this question, we first look at the UAE's natural gas production. In 2008, the UAE produced around 50 billion cu m of natural gas, but consumed over 59 billion cu m. Why would a country with the world's 7th largest reserves of natural gas need to import natural gas? Well, the only reasonable explanation is that the UAE is producing far less natural gas than other countries that have large reserves. This turns out to be the case, with the UAE's gas production sitting at number 18 in the world, far below its reserve ranking of 7th. [2] Given that the UAE is currently importing natural gas to keep up with domestic consumption, we can safely assume that the report summarized above is not fabricating information about the UAE's natural gas requirements. In addition, it seems that the UAE's government has put environmental effects at a high priority level when considering new sources of energy. Combining all of these factors together, the UAE concluded that nuclear energy was the best way to bridge the gap between expected energy consumption and current energy production. While placing a high level of emphasis on environmental factors is an admirable concern, the UAE would be very hesitant to pursue nuclear power if Iran-like sanctions would result. So how did the UAE prevent this scenario?

The UAE is a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty member (NPT), and ratified a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 2009 [4]. Basically, by signing all the correct forms and ratifying the right agreements, the UAE had the ability to request assistance in developing a nuclear program without the shroud of proliferation hanging overhead. With these agreements signed and while cooperating with current nuclear nations, the UAE was able to draft an approach to nuclear energy that no world power saw as a threat to non-proliferation. This approach included some key factors:p>

  1. The UAE announced that it would "offer joint-venture arrangements to foreign investors for the construction and operation of future nuclear power plants. [4] This prevents the government from controlling the entire financial and operations processes of its nuclear program, which is strikingly different than the private, government owned program in Iran.

  2. The UAE set up a model of managing its nuclear power program based on contractor services rather than more slowly establishing indigenous expertise. [4] This serves two purposes: first, it allows the UAE to quickly ramp up power production, and second, it allows more foreign oversight on the nuclear plants.

  3. The UAE decided to avoid domestic enrichment or reprocessing, and rather focus on long-term supply agreements with uranium suppliers. A law titled the Federal Law Regarding the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy was signed into effect in 2009. This law makes it illegal to develop, construct, or operate uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities within the UAE's borders. [4] This prevents any chance of nuclear weapons development, since uranium enrichment is required to produce weapons from uranium.

  4. The UAE allowed the IAEA to look over its plans for nuclear power development through the NIR (Nuclear Infrastructure Review). The NIR reported that the UAE had a program that passed their recommended milestones, including cooperation, without compromising their independence, between the regulatory bodies and utility, human resource development, a well-structured management system, and a strong safety culture. [4]

  5. The UAE signed nuclear energy cooperation agreements with the US, France, and South Korea in 2009. They signed a memorandum of Understanding on nuclear energy cooperation with the US. [4] These agreements allow the UAE to find uranium suppliers as well as sources for nuclear expertise, while remaining under the NPT agreements.

All of these steps ensured that the UAE would not be suspected of developing nuclear weapons with their energy program. These steps can be used as a blueprint for how to comply with pre-existing agreements on nuclear proliferation, as well as prevent any suspicions of nuclear weapons development by the international community. However, many of the steps above are simply unacceptable for governments that want to create localized technical expertise, as well as safeguard their energy supplies. Thus, it seems that while the UAE's steps were admirable, the concessions made in these agreements tend to be unacceptable and nearly irrelevant for most countries who aim to develop nuclear energy.

© Salahodeen Abdul-Kafi. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "South Korea Awarded UAE Nuclear Power Contract," BBC News, 27 Dec 09.

[2] "The World Factbook," U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

[3] "Analysis of Uranium Supply to 2050," International Atomic Energy Agency, STI/PUB/1104, May 2001.

[4] K. J. Araj, N. Fahmy and C. Sompon, "Why Go Nuclear?" Bull. Atomic Scientists 64, No. 4, 14 (2008).