BEIRUT, Lebanon – The United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to open a nuclear power station on Saturday, raising concerns about the long-term consequences of introducing more nuclear programs to the Middle East.
Two other countries in the region – Israel and Iran – already have nuclear capabilities. Israel has an unrecognized nuclear weapons arsenal and Iran has a controversial uranium enrichment program that it insists is for peaceful purposes only.
The UAE, a tiny nation that has become a regional heavyweight and international business center, said it built the plant to reduce its dependence on the oil that has powered and enriched the country and its neighbors in the Gulf for decades . He said that once all four of its units were up and running, the South Korean-designed factory would provide a quarter of the country’s electricity.
Amidst quiet fears that he is trying to build muscle to use against his regional rivals, he has insisted that he intends to use his nuclear program solely for energy purposes.
But with Iran in a standoff with Western powers over its nuclear program, Israel in the neighborhood and tensions high among Gulf countries, some analysts regard the new plant – and any that might follow – as a security headache and environmental. Other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, also initiate or plan nuclear power programs.
The Middle East is already buzzing with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against the regional deputies of Iran, Qatar and Iran. One of those deputies, a Houthi rebel group from Yemen, allegedly attacked the Barakah factory when it was under construction in 2017.
And it is widely believed that Iran has been behind a series of attacks on Saudi oil facilities and oil tankers passing through the Gulf over the past year.
“The UAE’s investment in these four nuclear reactors is at risk of destabilizing the volatile Gulf region, damaging the environment and raising the possibility of nuclear proliferation,” wrote Paul Dorfman, a researcher at University College London’s Energy Institute, in op -ed in March.
Noting that the UAE has other energy options, including “some of the best solar energy resources in the world,” he added that “the nature of Emirate’s interest in nuclear might be hidden in plain view – proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
But the UAE has said it had considered natural gas and renewable energy sources before dismissing it in favor of nuclear power because they would not produce enough for its needs.
Offering evidence that his intentions are peaceful, he draws attention to his collaborations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has reviewed the Barakah project, and the United States, with which he signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement in 2009 that allow it to receive nuclear materials. and technical assistance from the United States in banning it from uranium enrichment and other potential bomb development activities.
That has not persuaded Qatar, which last year filed a complaint with the international nuclear watchdog over the Barakah factory, calling it “a serious threat to the stability of the region and its environment.”
The UAE’s oil exports account for about a quarter of its total gross domestic product. Despite its gusher of oil, it has imported increasing amounts of natural gas in recent years in part to power its energy-intensive desalination plants.
“We are pleased to see the start of operations of Barakah nuclear power station, in accordance with the highest international security standards,” Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto manager, tweeted on Saturday.
The new nuclear facility, located in the coastal Gharbiya region, close to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is the first of several potential Middle East nuclear plants. Egypt plans to build a power station with four nuclear reactors.
Saudi Arabia is also building a civil nuclear reactor in pursuit of a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, although the Trump administration has said it would sign such an agreement only if it includes safeguards against developing weapons .