Arabian Nights, Now Nuclear Powered
1 November 2022
Through cutting-edge investments in high-technology, the UAE seeks to project itself as an emerging, dynamic hub of all things ‘gen-next’. The path to reshaping its identity from that of just another oil-rich Gulf state necessitates some bold choices. Commissioning the Barakah nuclear facility is one such roll of the dice.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a rather surprising new hub for the nuclear energy industry. In August 2020, UAE saw the first nuclear reactor in the Arabian Peninsula, the Barakah-1, get connected to the grid. In a geopolitical region perhaps better known for its fossil fuel production than anything else, the embrace of nuclear energy is a courageous political gambit.
The West Asian region has had a troubled history related to the nuclear sector. Whether it is in Iraq, Iran, Israel or Syria, well known attacks on nuclear reactors with varying degrees of success have been carried out over the years. In this context, why have the decision-makers that be of the Emirati federation taken the decision to embrace nuclear power? Economic factors, the relative performance of competing energy sectors (whether renewable or non-renewable), risk assessments and the weight of international public opinion (as well as domestic even if it may be a lesser consideration) would all have been factors that were taken into consideration before the project got the green light in 2009. However, technological compulsions and the potential for a resultant boost in international stature may well have been the factors that moved the needle in the final analysis.
The nuclear power industry has been in existence since the 1950s. Over the decades, there have been catastrophic nuclear accidents which have taken place in leading technological powers such as the Soviet Union, USA and Japan. Meanwhile, in recent decades, other renewable energy sectors (led by solar but also other sectors such as wind) have caught and surpassed nuclear energy in terms of cost of energy production when calculated over the lifetime of those installations. However, nuclear energy has long offered certain intangibles for a nation’s standing in the international system which other energy installations just cannot offer.
A metaphoric reference from popular culture could well be handy here. The Marvel franchise’s The Avengers movie sees the Asgardian hero Thor talk of mankind’s work on the Tesseract as having signalled that the Earth is ready for a ‘higher form of war’. (Interestingly, the Tesseract itself is quoted to be a potential source for ‘unlimited sustainable energy’ elsewhere in the film.) While one would certainly hope that establishing a nuclear power plant would not be seen as an invitation for conflict (or indeed, that it leads to the pursuit of nuclear weapons), mastering nuclear technology is very much a coming of age moment for the scientific knowledge base of any nation.
South Korea is of course setting up the four reactors at the Barakah site and as such, the UAE certainly cannot make any claims whatsoever on having achieved the indigenous technological capacity to become a player in the nuclear energy sector. However, they do have to start somewhere and by getting their citizens trained in operating the Barakah plant, the UAE is laying the stepping stones for enhancing their understanding of the sector. The UAE has proven itself more than ready to play the long game, with their 100-year plan to establish a city on Mars (the target is 2117) being an example. Just as they asked for and received significant handholding from the USA for its Amal (Hope) orbiter mission to Mars, in the nuclear sector, it is again the USA and the American ally, South Korea, who have been approached to be the initial guiding lights.
Critics of the development have cited any number of ‘low-probability, high-impact risks’ as reasons to force a reconsideration of the Emirates’ plans. Just some of the concerns raised by various commentators are:
The potential for a nuclear disaster caused by natural disasters or human incompetence;
The possibility of an aerial attack similar to the Houthi rocket salvo against Saudi Arabian oil fields or the Israeli bombing raids on Iraq’s nuclear facilities;
Rumours that the reactor design and construction have cut corners;
Worries on theft of nuclear material or waste;
Cross-regional fallout in case of spillage of radioactive material into the Arabian Gulf;
The lack of transparency by UAE’s regulatory agencies;
And of course, the old go-to of anti-nuclear protestors everywhere, the possibility for a secretive nuclear weapons program being developed which then escalates into an all-out nuclear arms race in the region.
Devoting time and energy to prove why such worries are unfounded at best, or downright cynical at worst, is a fool’s errand. A quick sampling of protests against nuclear energy installations across the world show a few common factors. There are well-organized lobbying efforts in nearly all cases, which prey on the fertile ground that is the intersection of a lack of knowledge among the masses on the working of nuclear power plants and the inherent fear of the word ‘nuclear’ itself - which results from the Hiroshima-Nagasaki weapon usage being most people’s impulsive go-to on hearing the term. How many ever safety audits, reliability reports or damage limitation studies are authored, the facts and scientific basis can easily be undone by mere whataboutism – oh, what happened to Chernobyl/Fukushima etc. The reality is far less important than the perception and very few democratic governments have the conviction to fight and win this battle when periodic elections are the central concern.
The UAE, in this context is uniquely placed, with its rulers enjoying a greater sense of stability than is even seen in some of the other autocratic regimes in their own vicinity. However, the Emirs of the Federation realize full well that given their relative disparity in size compared to other prominent West Asian nations, their ability to remain an internationally-relevant player depends as much on their continued modernisation and ability to attract the brightest talents from far and wide, as anything else. Pursuing nuclear energy shows the world the UAE’s commitment to enhance its scientific prowess and emerge as a knowledge economy. Having a working nuclear power plant also comes with various advantages for research in other fields such as medicine, desalination, agriculture, potentially even automobiles.
Through cutting-edge investments in sectors such as space technologies, clean energy and modernist architecture, the UAE is well on course to projecting itself as an emerging, dynamic hub of all things ‘gen-next’. The path to reshaping its identity from being seen as nothing more than an oil-rich, geographically-blessed transport hub to being recognized as a rising technological power necessitates some bold choices. Commissioning the Barakah facility is certainly one such roll of the dice.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Vineeth is the Editor - Politics and Strategy, of StraTechos. He is a Co-founder and Director of Trivium. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and IR, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and a recipient of the Dr. T. M. A. Pai Fellowship. His doctoral thesis is on the emerging dynamics in space security, analysing the prospects and challenges for cooperation among the major spacefaring nations.
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