US / UAE deal now up for approval
Support in Congress is off to a strong start
In return, the UAE would agree not to develop uranium enrichment or fuel reprocessing capabilities.
The deal is a model for the rest of the Middle East, which is nervous about the path Iran has gone down. A hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee July 8 included strong statements of support from Obama Administration officials at the State Department.
NTI’s Global Security Newswire reports that top lawmakers have introduced resolutions in the House and Senate to endorse a pending civilian nuclear trade deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The deal was signed during the last days of the Bush Administration, but not submitted to Congress until now.
If there is no negative action taken by Congress in the next 90 days, the deal will allow the UAE to purchase nuclear reactor technology and fuel. In exchange, the UAE pledges not to develop its own uranium enrichment capabilities nor spent fuel reprocessing plants.
Near-and-long-term market potential
The commercial stakes are high, but also apparently somewhat fluid in their definition. What is known is that the country plans to build at least 3-5 GWe of nuclear capacity in the near-term to meet three important objectives.
- The first objective is to provide electricity for its growing population.
- Second, the nation wants to stop burning its limited natural gas reserves for salt water desalinization.
- Third, the UAE has bauxite ore that it wants to process to make aluminum castings and start up a finished aluminum products manufacturing industry.
Longer term the nuclear energy work in the UAE could be worth as much as $60 billion. NTI reports the UAE plans to build 40 GWe worth of nuclear power plants in the next 20 years which would position it as a regional exporter of electricity.
A short list of bidders for the nuclear plants is expected to be released this Fall. French companies including GDF Suez and Areva are said to be leading contenders for the reactors. Construction of transmission and distribution lines to serve customers in Saudi Arabia is also a big part of the initial contract.
Several U.S. firms are already working in the UAE including CH2MHill on overall project management for construction of the plants and GoodHarbor Consulting LLC on security and risk management. U.S. reactor firms including Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi are very interested in the UAE’s plans.
Diplomatic game in high gear
The odds look good for getting the deal approved in Congress. NTI reports the Senate approval measure was introduced by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the respective top Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) introduced a similar resolution. He said in a statement . . .
"I am satisfied that this agreement is in the nonproliferation interest of the United States. This is a model that any future U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, and all other nuclear supplier states, should follow.”
What tilts toward a high approval rating for the UAE measure is that it goes beyond existing international controls on nuclear materials and technology. According again to Berman . . .
“It includes nonproliferation measures that are not mandatory under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, U.S. law or Nuclear Suppliers Group bylaws.
This proposed agreement contains, for the first time, a binding legal commitment by a foreign country not to enrich uranium or produce plutonium, which can be used either to fuel electricity-generating reactors or nuclear bombs. It demonstrates that there is another way to a truly peaceful nuclear energy program.”
That last statement is aimed directly at Iran which is pursuing a path on nuclear energy that involves making weapons grade uranium and an atomic bomb. Iran’s refusal to come to the table to discuss its actions make it a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.
if there is a hesitation in Congress it is the UAE’s proximity and trade relationships with Iran. Back to Rep. Berman again who also said he’s worried that the deal could open the door to transfer of nuclear technology and equipment to Iran.
It’s hard to know whether in the world of diplomacy Congress is deliberately choosing to see just one side of the elephant. It is clear Iran already has most of the technology it needs having gotten it through black market channels. Even if the UAE is bottled up as a port of entry, Iranian nuclear infrastructure will get its parts and expertise from other nations including Pakistan and North Korea.
While the world may have to live with an Iranian nuclear program, and the bizarre politics of its leaders, the UAE deal could serve as an example to other Arab nations they don’t have to go down that path.
While House Democrats appear to be on-board with the deal, it isn’t such a rosy picture with the Republicans who nominally support nuclear energy deals. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the Foreign Affairs Committee's top Republican, said she would not support the deal.
“I continue to have serious concerns with this agreement which require me to oppose it at this time. These focus on the UAE’s long record as the principal transshipment point for sanctioned items to Iran for use in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as Iran’s use of banking facilities in the UAE to funnel resources to violent Islamist extremist groups.
The UAE has taken steps in the last two years to address some of these issues. However, it has yet to implement all of the measures it has announced, and there has been too little time for a track record to be established by which to judge their effectiveness."
She wants to add a list of conditions to the deal regarding the UAE’s relationship with Iran. These conditions could be non-starters for the UAE since they likely cross the line and proscribe how the UAE will conduct its internal affairs and its diplomatic and trade relations with other countries.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen may know this and is just registering a symbolic protest, but it could spell trouble if other House republicans take her seriously because of her position on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
State Department weighs in
Reuters reported July 8 that U.S. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher told lawmakers the UAE made a number of "unprecedented commitments" in the pact to ensure it would not use U.S. technology to develop a nuclear weapon or help others in the region do that.
"The UAE's expressed commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing capabilities is a marked contrast to Iran, which continues to defy its international obligations."
Tauscher also said the U.S. would cancel the nuclear energy agreement with the UAE if it violated any terms of the deal.
Rep James McGovern (D-MA) told the hearing he is concerned about a video that surfaced this spring that "depicts Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan severely torturing an Afghani grain dealer with the help of his uniformed official personnel."
Reuters reported that Sheikh Issa, a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, was detained by prosecutors in May after the video, made in 2004, surfaced on ABC network television. McGovern said he was concerned that Sheikh Issa still has not been charged with a crime. The human rights issue may have died down since Issa was taken out of public view.
It is clear with her testimony [full text][video] to the House Foreign Affairs Committee the Obama Administration wants to help the UAE become the first Arab country with a civilian nuclear power industry. At the same time the U.S. is determined to prevent that technology from moving across the Gulf to Iran. Congress has until October 17 to make up its mind on the deal.
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Dan Yurman publishes a blog on nuclear energy titled 'Idaho Samizdat' http://djysrv.blogspot.com. It covers the nuclear energy industry globally including new reactor investments, economics, politics, and technologies. He is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe http://ansnuclearcafe.org and to Fuel Cycle Week http://fuelcycleweek.com
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