The Middle East in Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

by Israel Rafalovich. He is a journalist based in Brussel, who has 50 years of experience including international postings in Tel-Aviv, Brussels, Germany and Washington,DC

The Middle East is likely to face more instability in the near future and the incentives for maintaining or acquiring nuclear weapons are likely to increase. In this case, Middle East conflicts could easily escalate into nuclear standoffs in a region bereft of tempering international bodies or adequate mechanisms for conflict resolution. A factor that looms large behind Middle East aspirations for nuclear weapons is power and influence in regional and international politics.

Arab states have long been angered by both the international community’s failure to sanction Israel over its covert nuclear weapons programme and by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which they see as cementing the primacy of the original five nuclear armed nations in international affairs.

Well, things are changing: Over the years, it has become more difficult for the United States to bring its power of deterrence to bear in the Middle East. This unique dynamic and political climate provides the Arab countries with unprecedented regional legitimacy to pursue a robust nuclear programme. A number of states in the Middle East have taken lately to set up and advance civilian nuclear power programmes possibly as means for obtaining the capability to manufacture nuclear arms in the future. While every country has stated that it has no plans to purchase nuclear weapons capabilities, the fact is that once a country has acquired these capabilities — under certain conditions — it could initiate a nuclear weapons programme. Civilian nuclear programmes can facilitate illicit procurement and provide technology and expertise to support a clandestine weapons programme.

States in the Middle East seeking civil nuclear programmes are likely to play off of the Russian, Chinese and European nuclear interests in a bid to bolster their power vis-a-vis primary ally the United States. Motivated by political and economic power-based interests Russia seems to be the chief contact in this field. Its arms and technology deals in the region have contributed towards renewed rise in the flow of highly sophisticated and strategically important technology to the Middle East.

Well, who is who in this emerging nuclear Middle East club?

Algeria’s nuclear history began before it gained its independence. France conducted its first nuclear test (Gerboise Bleue) on February 13, 1960 near Reggane, in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Algeria has one of the best and most developed nuclear complexes of the whole Arab world. As early as 1974, it was making grandiose plans for a future nuclear energy programme designed to save gas and oil exports. Since the late 1980s Algeria has had a significant nuclear programme, which includes four now safeguarded nuclear facilities at different sites.

The NUR research reactor, is located at the Draria nuclear complex, about 20 km east of Algiers. It was constructed by Argentina. The 1 MWt pool-type-light-water reactor went on line in 1989. Its fuel, twenty percent Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), was provided by Argentina. It is officially used for research and the production of isotopes.

The Es Salam research reactor is located in Ain Oussera, in the Sahara Desert, 140 km south of Algiers. It is a 15 MWt heavy-water moderated reactor and was built following the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. In 1991 China stated that under this agreement, it had also delivered 11 metric tonnes of heavy water and 216 fuel moduls totalling 909 kg of three percent LEU (Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Capabilities in the Middle East“, p. 10). The site also hosts various facilities, including an isotope production plant, hot cell laboratories and waste-storage tanks.

In Paris people examine the bonus pages of the newspaper covering the French nuclear tests in Algeria.

In Paris people examine the bonus pages of the newspaper covering the French nuclear tests in Algeria.

Algeria also has significant Uranium deposits, about 26,000 tonnes in Targu shield (Nuclear Energy Agency, International Atomic Energy Agency, and International Atomic Energy Agency, “Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand“, 2016). In common with Morocco, it has considerable amounts of phosphate ore from which Uranium is being recovered.

However, Algeria is a potential proliferating country. The proliferation concerns stem from several factors. The Es Salam complex, which is fairly large and well protected for research facility, is of a type that would potentially allow for production of weapons grade Plutonium. According to European intelligence sources, a heavy-walled building near the reactor appeared to have been intended to be full scale reprocessing plant. The size of the cooling towers exceeded the requirements of a 15 MWt reactor and would be more with a 25 MWT or 60 MWt reactor. Estimates regarding the quantity of Plutonium that could be generated by the reactor at 15 MWt vary from between 1-5 kg a year. (Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Capabilities in the Middle East“, p. 11).

Egypt, has established a significant research infrastructure that is capable of exploring most aspects of nuclear science and technology. Most of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority activities are carried out by scientists at two research centers: The Hot Laboratory and Waste Management Center and the Nuclear Research Center which hosts the Argentine supplied 22 MWt ETTR-2 light water research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, a hot cell complex and a waste management facility at Inshas.

The hot cell in Inshas are the only known facilities in Egypt that could be used to separate weapon usable Plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. Furthermore, it has facilities and equipment necessary for fuel separation. There is to point out that spent fuel accumulated by the ETTR-2 reactor over ten years of operation is likely to be equivalent to eight to ten weapon worth of Plutonium reprocessed (see also Mark Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Capabilities in the Middle East“, 06.-07.07.2011, p. 12).

Already in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed an agreement for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt.

Already in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed an agreement for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt.

On January 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found evidence that Egypt had conducted nuclear experiments that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon. Particles of activities and fission products were discovered near a nuclear facility, which could be indicating work on Plutonium separation (Tariq Khaitous, “Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s Policies toward Iran’s Nuclear Program“, Nuclear Threat Initiative, 01.12.2007). Egypt was reported to have produced several kilograms of Uranium metal and Uranium hexafluoride gas. While the experiments occurred mainly in the 1980s and 1990s, there were indications that some were carried out as recently as 2003. The projects themselves were not illegal, but the failure to make the declarations raised concerns about Egypt’s intentions. (Director General of the IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Arab Republic of Egypt“, IAEA, 14.02.2005). Until now, Egypt has not renounced its decision not to pursue nuclear weapons following the peace treaty with Israel in 1979 (see also Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss, “The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices“, Brookings Institution Press, 2005, p. 43-83).

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman promised to contribute to the revival of the long dormant Egyptian programme. Politically, Egypt has never come to terms with Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons; so, a nuclear Egypt remains on the table. Although Egypt regularly show’s strong commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and to a nuclear free Middle East, European diplomats in the Middle East said that Egypt might be considering building a break out capability. Egypt’s Nuclear Material Authority has been conducting work to extract Uranium ore concentrate from phosphoric acid derived from El-Shaiya phosphate ore. According to European intelligence sources Egypt has a semi-pilot Uranium extraction plant, to separate Uranium from phosphoric acid. If Egypt continues to perfect methods to recover Uranium from phosphoric acid, it will secure a steady domestic production of Uranium.

Reactor construction operation and management have also been the focus of the Egyptians and could be intensified in the future after the recent political decision regarding the construction of a nuclear power reactor. On December 2017, a final contract to start work constructing Egypt’s first nuclear power plant was signed in Cairo during a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The power plant, which will contain four VVER-1200 reactors, will be built in El Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast. The site is deemed suitable for eight reactors. Rosatom will supply nuclear fuel throughout the plants entire life time. Rosatom will also train personnel and will assist its Egyptian partners in operation and maintenance during the first ten years of the plants operation. The first unit is to get online in 2026.

Saudi Arabia
Although, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme is in its infancy, the Kingdom has plans to construct 16 nuclear power plants over the next twenty years at a cost of more than 80 billion dollars. In January 2016, Saudi Arabia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China for the construction of High-Temperature-Gas-cooled reactors. In August 2017 the two states signed two further Memorandums of Understanding, one to explore and assess uranium and thorium resources in Saudi Arabia and another to develop water desalination projects using gas-cooled nuclear reactors (“Saudi Arabia Signs Cooperation Deals with China on Nuclear Energy“, Reuters, 25.08.2017).

Nevertheless, in October 2017, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy signed with Rosatom a “programme of cooperation” for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The plan is to cooperate in small and medium-size reactors which can be used both for power generation and desalination of sea water. Rosatom will also be training Saudi personnel for the national nuclear programme and in the development of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy infrastructure. According to Rosatom, they will also look into the prospects of establishing a center for nuclear science and technology in Saudi Arabia based on a Russian-design research reactor.

At the same time, according to informed sources in Washington, the U.S. nuclear industry is pushing to restart talks with Saudi Arabia on an agreement to help the Kingdom develop nuclear energy. Under Article 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, a peaceful cooperation agreement is required for the transfer of nuclear materials, technology and equipment. It would deprive Saudi Arabia of the possibility of one day enriching Uranium. The Kingdom refuses to sign up to any such agreement with the United States. They want to secure enrichment if down the line they want to do it (see also Kingston Reif, Daryl G. Kimball, and Kelsey Davenport, “The Risks of Nuclear Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Role of Congress“, Arms Control Association, 5 April 2018).

Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear technology, is coming at a time of heighten tension in the Gulf. It seems to underline the Saudi intention to seek some type of deterrent against future Israeli and Iranian weapon capabilities. These nuclear power projects would allow Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear infrastructure and scientific expertise under NPT rules. Although, not by itself a gateway to nuclear weapons, this could be a long-term security hedge.

In the past Saudi Arabia has been the subject of speculation regarding nuclear weapons ambitions. “[A]mong the charges levelled at it have been that it possesses undeclared nuclear facilities; that it sought or may seek a nuclear security guarantee from a country [(Pakistan)] other than the United States in return for energy supplies; and that it has attempted or planned for the outright purchase of a nuclear weapon and/or delivery system from another state.” (Mark Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran“, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008, p 42). It has been believed that the Saudi’s bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear programme in the 1970s and ’80s and now want some reciprocity in the shape of ready-made nuclear weapons, paid for by massive financial aid to Islamabad (Mark Urban, “Saudi Nuclear Weapons ‘on Order’ from Pakistan“, BBC News, 06.11.2013).

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman listen national anthems during their meeting in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. It was the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman listen national anthems during their meeting in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. It was the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia.

Should Turkey decide to establish its own deterrent, it would do so with the advantage of already having in place a well established nuclear research agency, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK). Furthermore, preliminary work has begun on civilian nuclear energy programme, that appears to move ahead, thereby expanding Turkey’s nuclear expertise.

The Turks have a lingering skepticism about NATO guarantees, which they not feel were forthcoming. Confidence in American leadership remains low. A hardening EU mood against Turkish accession is another reason to growing alienation from the West, which Turkey sees as a reason to consider its own deterrent.

The ITU TRIGA Mark-II Training and Research Reactor at the Istanbul Technical University.

The ITU TRIGA Mark-II Training and Research Reactor at the Istanbul Technical University.

Turkey has a substantial nuclear infrastructure run by the TAEK. Four research centers and laboratories have been established within government facilities and universities and the most important is Çekmece Nuclear Research and Training Center located in Istanbul.

The ITU-TRR research reactor, is a 250 KWT TRIGA Mark-II light water reactor. The reactor is operated by the Institute for Nuclear Energy and located at the Istanbul Technical University. The other research reactor is the TR-2 5 MWt reactor.

On December 2017, Turkey has formally launched the construction of its first nuclear plant at Akkuyu following the issuance of a limited construction permit. The project is based on an intergovernmental agreement signed between Russia and Turkey in May 2010. JSC Akkuyu Nuklear, the Russian-owned company responsible for the project, expects to receive a construction permit in March. This will be the official start of the Akkuyu plant’s construction. The plant will have an installed capacity of 4,800 MWe and will have VVER-1200 reactor. Akkuyu nuclear power plant will be in operation for at least sixty years.

For now, Turkey does not have the ability to produce significant quantities of fissile material usable in a nuclear weapons programme. The TAEK has already begun to search for Uranium deposits in Turkey in order to avoid relying on imported Uranium to support the nuclear energy programme. Turkey is estimated to have just over 9,200 tonnes of Uranium in reserves but there is disagreement over whether this will be sufficient (Nuclear Energy Agency, International Atomic Energy Agency, and International Atomic Energy Agency, “Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand“, 2016).

European intelligence sources said that Turkey has the technical capabilities to manufacture many of the components for gas-centrifuge Uranium enrichment programme, although, until now, Turkey has not given any hint that it has the intention of doing so.

The risk is substantial that Turkey will seek advanced nuclear capabilities in order to have comparable power to Iran under ambitious nuclear energy plans laid by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial actions increase the risk that Turkey will seek nuclear weapons capabilities – tools that Erdogan may find useful for consolidating power and augmenting Turkey’s regional power status. Turkey is also adamant about making its nuclear infrastructure as independent from foreign aid as possible, as soon as it has acquired the needed workforce and technology. Turkey’s interpretation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as granting a “right to enrich” and its resistance to tightened Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) restrictions on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology are strong indicators of a desire to keep open the possibility of advanced fuel cycle development. Therefore, although official statements deny Turkish plans to acquire enrichment capabilities, NSG member states should block any attempts by Turkey to import technology that would support enrichment facilities and further destabilize the Middle East. National intelligence agencies should watch for any signs of illicit efforts by Turkey to procure these or weaponization knowledge and capabilities. — Sarah Burkhard et al., “Nuclear Infrastructure and Proliferation Risks of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt“, Institute for Science and International Security, 25 August 2017, p. 10.

United Arab Emirates
Since the late 1970s, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has periodically expressed an interest in nuclear energy. It has a long history of technical cooperation projects with IAEA. Beyond that the UAE has been pursuing its own nuclear plans. Yet, the UAE also faces strategic threats that have caused the government’s decision to explore a national nuclear programme. Its domestic security situation seems to justify its choice. While the possibilities of eventual proliferation ultimately depend on future political choices, and can therefore never be completely excluded in the programme early years.

Four Korean designed APR-1400 reactors are being built at Barakah by a consortium led by KEPCO. Construction on the first unit began in July 2012, unit 2 in May 2013, unit 3 in September 2014 and unit 4 in September 2015 (World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in the United Arab Emirates“, March 2018). Unit 1 is now in the commissioning and testing phase and is waiting for nuclear regulation to issue an operating licence before fuel loading can commence. Unit 2 is now more than 92% completed. Unit 3 more than 81% completed and unit 4 more than 67% completed. All four units are expected to be in service by the end of 2020. (“Barakah 1 Construction Formally Complete“, World Nuclear News, 26.03.2018).

In early 2009 the UAE signed an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation under the US Atomic Energy Act with the United States, forfeiting its right to enrich Uranium domestically. By the end of July 2012 Australia and the UAE signed an agreement paving the way for sales of Australian Uranium. But, lately the UAE have declared that should Iran be allowed to enrich Uranium, the UAE will not see itself bound by its agreement with the United States (Deb Riechmann, “UAE Tells US Lawmaker It Has Right to Enrich Uranium, too“, AP News, 16 October 2015).

Construction of UAE's first nuclear power plant at the Barakah site.

Construction of UAE’s first nuclear power plant at the Barakah site.

The pursuit of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East gives countries in the region the right to adopt policies and forge alliances with countries that possess nuclear technology with a view to striking a military balance in the region in defence of their interests. A nuclear Middle East will have profound impact on the security and non-proliferation issues in the Middle East. There is to take into consideration that in the foreseeable future several countries will decide on a collective breakout from the NPT. The objective of a total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East will not be achieved as long as it excludes Israel. What is more: As long as one other country has the potential to make and use nuclear weapons, it makes no sense for any other country to give up altogether its own nuclear capabilities.

This entry was posted in Egypt, Energy Security, English, Israel Rafalovich, Politics in General, Proliferation, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE.

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