In the desert 220km (137 miles) from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a South Korean firm is close to finishing the Arab world’s first operational nuclear-power reactor. The project started ten years ago in Washington, where the Emiratis negotiated a “123 agreement”. Such deals, named after a clause in America’s export-control laws, impose tough safeguards in return for American nuclear technology. When the UAE signed one in 2009, it also pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Both can be used to make nuclear weapons. Arms-control wonks called it the gold standard of 123 deals.
Saudi Arabia… has its own ambitious nuclear plans: 16 reactors, at a cost of up to $80bn. But, unlike the UAE, it wants to do its own enrichment. Iran, its regional rival, is already a step ahead. The most controversial provision of the nuclear deal it signed with world powers in 2015 allows it to enrich uranium. Iran did agree to mothball most of the centrifuges used for enrichment, and to process the stuff only to a level far below what is required for a bomb. Still, it kept the technology. The Saudis want to have it, too… Indeed, critics of the Iran deal fear that a Saudi enrichment programme would compromise their effort to impose tighter restrictions on Iran. But Donald Trump, America’s president, is less concerned. He has close ties with the Saudis. He has also pledged to revitalise America’s ailing nuclear industry. Among the five firms bidding for the Saudi project is Westinghouse, an American company that filed for bankruptcy last year. It would not be able to join the project without a 123 agreement…One is Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company, which is pursuing a frenetic sort of nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. In December it signed a $21.3bn contract to build Egypt’s first power reactor. Jordan inked a $10bn deal with the Russians in 2015. Despite their differences, particularly over Syria, the Saudis are keen to have closer ties with the region’s resurgent power [Russia]. King Salman spent four days in Moscow in October 2017, the first such visit by a Saudi ruler.
Excerpt from Nuclear Power in the Middle East: An Unenriching debate, Economist, Feb. 10, 2018