Journal Article - Afkar/Ideas

Nuclear Energy in the Middle East? Regional Security Cooperation Needed

| Spring 2017

Nuclear power in the Middle East has appeared poised for dramatic growth for more than a decade.  Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr, the first of its kind in the Middle East, began producing electricity in 2011. Tehran has plans or proposals for additional 11 reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association. Saudi Arabia has announced plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors by 2040. The UAE has four nuclear power reactors under construction, the first of which is expected to come online later this year.  Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan, are each pursuing the development nuclear energy at their own pace.  The appearance of activity is impressive. 

But plans do not produce electricity. Power plants do.  Nuclear energy has not taken off as predicted in the Middle East and is not likely to grow or spread quickly. The primary reason is cost. High up-front capital costs make generating electricity with a nuclear reactor more expensive per kilowatt-hour than with gas or coal-fired plants. 

And cost is not the only barrier.  The safety, security, and proliferation risks associated with nuclear energy are very real, especially in the Middle East, and they feed public reservations about the technology in the region and beyond.  Knocking down the barriers to nuclear energy in the Middle East will require major investments in technology, regulatory institutions, and education and training. Some of this is happening. It will also require unprecedented regional cooperation. Under the present political circumstances such cooperation remains a remote prospect.


Following the Fukushima accident, fears about nuclear safety also reached the Middle East.  Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait abandoned their nuclear energy plans.  The Jordanian and Egyptian governments paused nuclear development in the face of significant public opposition, though in each case the projects were eventually resumed.

Iran pushed ahead, bringing its reactor at Bushehr online just two months after the Fukushima quake.  Arab Gulf countries objected to the reactor at Bushehr on safety grounds (notwithstanding the broader controversy at that time over Iran’s uranium enrichment program). The fears were not baseless.  The plant was built over more than three decades, through revolution and war, and is a hybrid of German, Russian, and Iranian components. Parts of the plant had aged before it was ever completed. The reactor also sits in an especially active seismic region and has been rocked by major quakes both prior to and since going critical. A reactor like this one would normally operate for at least 40 years. In the past 40 years, there have been seven earthquakes of 6.0 or greater magnitude in close proximity to where the power station now sits. It is designed to withstand up to an 8.0 magnitude quake. A major accident at Bushehr could potentially affect Arab population centers across the Gulf.  Concerns surrounding the Bushehr reactor vividly illustrate how politics and nuclear safety become intertwined.

The UAE government has encountered less opposition to its nuclear construction, in part because it has gone to great lengths to reassure its people and its neighbors that it is taking every precaution to ensure safe operation. Abu Dhabi adopted a policy of transparency about its nuclear plans and joined all the relevant international conventions governing nuclear safety and liability before embarking on construction of its power plants. Iran, by contrast, still has not joined several of the relevant international nuclear conventions, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which requires parties to implement minimum safety standards in national law, undertake regular safety assessments, and report on the results to other members of the convention. Iran is the only country in the world with a major nuclear program that is not a member.

The storage and long-term disposal of highly radioactive waste in an environmentally sustainable manner is another barrier to large-scale nuclear growth in the Middle East, though there is still time to find solutions. Deep geological repositories can offer a stable resting place for nuclear waste, but such storage projects would most viable if open to and managed by a regional grouping of states—and few if any regional discussions of nuclear waste storage have occurred to date in the Middle East. 


Technology can solve part of the safety problem. At Fukushima, nature conspired to produce an improbable (but not unpredictable) set of events—an earthquake and tsunami—with devastating effect.  The reactors under construction and planned in the Middle East today are inherently safer than those of earlier generations, including the units at Fukushima.  Safety-conscious operators, running reactors with more passive safety features, monitored by independent regulators, can bring the risk of a major accident to a very low level. 

Far more difficult is designing protections against intelligent adversaries—terrorists—intent on engineering a Fukushima-like event—particularly if attackers outside the plant are working with one or more insiders when they attack.

Terrorism and sabotage involving nuclear plants is not so rare.  In South Africa in 1982, an employee smuggled explosives into a reactor building in an advanced stage of construction and set them off on top of the reactor pressure vessel, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. In 1994, Lithuanian authorities were forced to shut down a nuclear reactor in response to three successive threats of sabotage. In 2014, the Doel-4 reactor in Belgium was sabotaged—lubricant was intentionally drained from a pump causing the reactor turbine to destroy itself, which resulted in $100-200 million in damage—though the perpetrator did not jeopardize the plant’s nuclear operations. These are but three of numerous examples.  Saboteurs have also exploited cyber vulnerabilities at nuclear plants before, and Iran is not the only victim of such attacks. In the future, terrorists or other governments could use cyber tools as part of a coordinated attack to cause a major radiological release.

Nuclear installations are also attractive military targets.  In regions where major war and military crises are remote, such concerns are relatively minor.  The Middle East enjoys no such luxury: since World War II, every known military attack on a nuclear installation has taken place there. Iran and Israel each bombed the Iraqi Osiraq reactor; Israel destroyed it in 1981. Iraq bombed the Iranian reactor site at Bushehr several times during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The United States bombed several Iraqi nuclear installations during the 1990s. And in 2007, Israel bombed a reactor nearing covert completion in Syria. Even today, plans for attacking Iran’s nuclear sites no doubt sit waiting in more than one military headquarters.  And no regional forum for the discussion of nuclear security and other regional security issues exists today.


The bombings of nuclear sites in the Middle East were mostly counter-productive. In nearly every case, they spurred rather than slowed efforts to acquire nuclear weapons (though experts disagree on this point).  Nevertheless, the attackers usually had justified fears that the nuclear sites they were bombing were connected to an effort to produce nuclear weapons. 

Light water reactors of the type operating in Iran today and under construction in the UAE do not by themselves pose a significant risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.  Factories that produce the nuclear fuel that goes into the reactors are another matter. Low enriched uranium fuel for nuclear reactors is readily available on the commercial market. When countries build uranium enrichment plants or reprocessing facilities (for separating plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel), they create an enormous burden of reassuring their neighbors of their peaceful intent, since these facilities use the same technologies that are used to produce the fissile cores of nuclear weapons.

Thus far, in the Middle East, only the UAE has agreed up front—as part of its national policy and nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States—not to pursue indigenous uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have refused to make similar commitments. And of course Iran fought tenaciously to preserve what it views as it right under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop its own uranium enrichment capability (though it has stated its intent not to acquire reprocessing for a 25 year period). 

Nuclear proliferation fears in the Middle East are deeply linked to nuclear energy development because of the troubled history of nuclear weapons programs in the region. Israel reportedly acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1960s and never signed the NPT. Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya each did sign the treaty and pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons.  But according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other government assessments these countries pursued nuclear weapons nevertheless. For decades, all states in the region have nominally supported UN General Assembly resolutions calling for the creation of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles. But progress toward that goal has been foiled at nearly every turn by all the major parties. Israel insists on peace with its neighbors and diplomatic recognition as a precondition for disarmament negotiations, and the Arab states and Iran counter that Israeli disarmament should precede regional peace negotiations. The political impasse has persisted since the 1970s will infect preparations for next NPT review conference in 2020, where participants will mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force.

Foundations for Growth

It is impossible to separate politics from the technology of nuclear energy development in the Middle East. Making the growth and spread of nuclear energy politically acceptable—to people within the countries where it is occurring, and to people and governments across the borders from where it is occurring—will require a shared commitment to safety, security, and non-proliferation.  It will also require a measure of self-restraint, and a lot of cooperation. All three are unfortunately in short supply today in the Middle East and around the world.

Governments in the region could do more to demonstrate their commitment to establishing sturdy foundations for nuclear energy by supporting and strengthening independent regulatory agencies, as well as effective export control and law enforcement agencies to prevent illicit trade in nuclear and dual-use technology.  Leaders at the highest level must also personally maintain a commitment to continuous improvement in nuclear safety and security.  All nuclear facilities should be designed to protect against at least a small group of external attackers working with an insider. Facilities facing more serious threats should have even greater protection. Building strong safety and security cultures in the organizations responsible for operating nuclear facilities also requires ongoing attention.

One way of demonstrating a commitment to safe, secure, and peaceful nuclear development is by joining and implementing relevant international conventions, including: the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (as amended), the International Convention of the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and the IAEA’s Additional Protocol for safeguards. Not one of these conventions or agreements is universally implemented in the Middle East. 

Nuclear energy will grow and spread with less tension and conflict in the Middle East if states demonstrably refrain from pursuing national enrichment or reprocessing. Iran, which already has enrichment facilities on its soil, should make permanent its commitment only to produce low enriched uranium and should revive its proposal for making its facility at Natanz and any future facilities multinational operations. All states should refrain from building reprocessing facilities. International experience with such facilities demonstrates clearly that they are generally uneconomical, unsafe, difficult to safeguard against proliferation, and environmentally hazardous.

Finally, the above commitments and restraints should be pursued in a cooperative manner. A WMD-free zone in the Middle East is an important but far-off goal. While working toward its establishment, there are many steps the states of the region could take to increase cooperation and transparency and reduce the chances of misperception about one another’s nuclear intentions. Cooperation on strengthening nuclear safety and security through regional workshops and peer review, discussions of regional nuclear waste management, and establishing regionally coordinated disaster response agencies that sponsor exercises using nuclear accident and nuclear terrorism scenarios would be places to start. Even prior to a WMD-free zone, states could agree to a regional ban on highly enriched uranium and plutonium production.  

Step by step, it is possible to imagine building cooperation in the Middle East so that nuclear energy is viewed as a safe, secure, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable source of energy. But until such steps begin in earnest, until there are mechanisms for security dialogue and dispute resolution, it is hard to imagine nuclear energy coming to the region on a significant scale.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Malin, Martin. Nuclear Energy in the Middle East? Regional Security Cooperation Needed.” Afkar/Ideas, (Spring 2017) .