Of all the calamities that have caused mass death and destruction in the Middle East in recent years—including civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, cholera, and famine—none is more potentially threatening to human life than the danger of nuclear power.
No, we’re not talking about nuclear war. Assuming Iran keeps the promises it made to the P5+1 in 2015 and doesn’t race to the bomb after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action expires in 2025, the risk of Middle Eastern antagonists acquiring nuclear weapons and using them against each other should remain small.
However, even if the region manages to avoid mushroom clouds, it still has to grapple with an enormous emerging nuclear challenge: the proliferation of civilian nuclear energy programs that lack adequate safety and security measures. It is no wonder why the European Union just donated €20 million to develop safe nuclear energy in Iran.
Several countries in the region, including Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, see nuclear energy as a long-term solution to their dependence on fossil fuel. In the UAE, the construction of the first nuclear power plant, the Barakah, is complete and will begin operating next year. In Turkey, the construction of the Akkuyu power plant, to be built, owned, and operated by Russia’s Rosatom, is ongoing despite political hiccups. Jordan also signed a deal with Rosatom to build the country’s first nuclear power plant by 2023. Egypt’s 2015 deal with Rosatom aims to build four nuclear reactors in the next twelve years. And Saudi Arabia has an ambitious plan to build sixteen reactors by 2040.
You can’t really blame the Middle East for thinking about and investing in nuclear energy. The demand for energy in the region continues to rise. From 1971 to 2014, energy use in the Middle East and North Africa grew 402 percent, and the trend continues apace today. And while the economics of nuclear power are not as clear-cut as many regional governments might think, they can be attractive. Nuclear power can also serve as an effective means to climate change mitigation and to sea water desalination, with a process that uses the excess heat from a nuclear power plant to evaporate sea water and to condense pure water. Both of these uses of nuclear power respond to important regional needs. In short, the Middle Eastern nuclear power train has departed— years ago, in fact—and nothing seems to be stopping it.
Its benefits notwithstanding, this expansion of nuclear power generation could also mean big trouble for the Middle East because of serious questions about the existing safety, safeguards, and security of nuclear power in the region. Consider Israeli concerns about Jordan’s nuclear plans, for example. Jordan had to reallocate the plans for its first nuclear power plant from Aqaba to Azraq, east of Amman, since Aqaba is in an active seismic zone. There’s no guarantee, however, that other regional governments will be as cooperative and responsible as Jordan, especially if they have adversarial relations with their neighbors.
The 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan have shown the world that major seismic events can disable reactor cooling systems and cause nuclear meltdown and contamination. Because the Middle East lacks cooling water and has seismic activity, any accident at a nuclear power plant could result in cross-border contamination. Emergency preparedness and response should be, in principle, a shared responsibility between regional states, but no such agreement exists today in the Middle East.
Our research indicates that the Middle East is not yet ready for a nuclear renaissance. From the real risks of radiological terrorism and theft to the lack of physical protection and local nuclear security expertise, there is no shortage of reasons to be deeply concerned about the future of nuclear power in the region. According to the 2016 Nuclear Security Index, an independent assessment conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and an international panel of experts, the Middle East and North Africa region ranks poorly in safeguarding nuclear materials from theft and is highly vulnerable to nuclear sabotage.
We have found that most governments in the region that have adopted nuclear energy programs do so based on economic analyses and financing considerations, as seen in the “Build-Own-Operate” model that Turkey is seeking from Russia. Nonmonetary elements such as the regulations for radioactive waste management are treated as afterthoughts to be taken care of later, as the nuclear power plant is being constructed.
Independent regulatory frameworks and national legislation on the accounting of and control of nuclear materials either don’t exist in the region or are underdeveloped. There are also no serious national plans for human resources development and trained personnel to support these emerging nuclear energy programs.
The introduction of new nuclear operators in the region without nuclear experience could be a recipe for disaster. While most militaries in the Middle East have chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) units, they are not geared toward the protection of civilian nuclear reactors, where private security companies need to be involved for on-site security.
Another big challenge is the dual-use nature of radioactive materials. Clearly, states have sovereign rights to use these materials for peaceful purposes. Since all radioactive sources emit energy, there is no infallible technical solution to distinguish between harmless and harmful sources without additional security measures. Even run-of-the-mill items like smoke detectors, fertilizers, cat litter, and food such as bananas typically produce false alarms.
All of the issues surrounding the security of nuclear materials point to the need for a coordinated effort that reaches across international borders to improve existing detection systems and oversight mechanisms in the Middle East. Yet there is no regional institution or organizational mechanism to discuss weapons of mass destruction or other regional security concerns by comprehensive representation from all states (although there is a CBRN Centers of Excellence network, which is funded by the European Commission and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute).
Governing elites in the region could choose one of three options. One, they could rely on current mechanisms against radiological and nuclear threats under existing international regimes. Or two, they could create an indigenous, regional security mechanism. The third option is to establish a hybrid framework. The region might need its own, tailor-made arrangements, but the process could be mentored by existing regimes and international organizations.
A key element in the success of the establishment of a regional radiological and nuclear security framework would be continued dialogue through an institutionalized process. While this framework would not be legally binding, a code of conduct would recognize the standards and recommendations.
At a minimum, the steps toward a regional framework would include setting up national registers of radiological and nuclear materials, identifying the gaps in individual countries’ legislation and criminal codes, developing measures to detect radioactive materials, establishing standards, and sharing best practices for securing these materials’ sources with a view toward regional capacity building.
International partners such as the European Union and the United States would be key players in building a region-wide, adaptive and robust infrastructure to detect and secure the materials. Operational measures would include acquiring advanced neutron and gamma detectors and network-based radiation detection systems, as well as the trained personnel to use them, and building regional emergency management centers. To this end, a Middle East action plan composed of prevention, detection, preparedness, and response could be inspired by the EU CBRN Action Plans.
Next steps might include encouraging states that have not yet done so to become party to the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and to commit to the IAEA’s Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. Nuclear newcomers should be encouraged to take steps to counter illicit trafficking through export control arrangements such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group on nuclear-related exports, the Zangger Committee on fissionable materials, and the Australia Group for chemical and biological export controls. These multinational export control regimes regulate the trade of dual-use goods and nuclear-related technologies that could be weaponized. While these organizations are not legally binding, participating states voluntarily harmonize export controls and contribute to the global nonproliferation regimes.
The Middle East’s daily crises and tragedies have prevented regional and international policymakers from anticipating and planning for security, scientific, and technological trends that will profoundly impact the stability of the region. One such trend is nuclear energy, which is guaranteed to arrive to the region in full force. Can the Middle East be trusted to manage this massive opportunity? Join the club if you’re skeptical.