Atomic Bonds in an Age of Entropy

Atomic Bonds in an Age of Entropy: 

The Pursuit of a Nuclear Security Framework in the Middle East

By Bilal Y. Saab and Nilsu Goren

February 28, 2018

Disorder and violence in the Middle East have reached unprecedented levels that make any talk of regional security cooperation, let alone plans for it, seem less credible today than ever before. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how arms control agendas could be launched in the region at a time when four countries—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—are engulfed in civil war, the Saudi-Iranian regional power struggle is worsening, and violent extremist groups are sowing death and destruction across the region and beyond.

Yet it is precisely under such extremely challenging conditions that security cooperation is most needed. And because most of the security problems affecting Middle Eastern stability are regional in nature, they require regional solutions. One of the ways to break this impasse and instill some degree of trust and confidence among regional stakeholders is by proposing practical, gradual items of cooperation that avoid politics and controversy, and do not intrinsically and immediately infringe upon the sovereignty and national security of states in the region. One such issue that could encourage countries in the Middle East to act more collectively and achieve concrete, mutual benefits is radiological and nuclear security. Though most countries in the Middle East do not possess highly-enriched uranium or plutonium—materials necessary to build nuclear weapons—given the region’s intense volatility the threats associated with radioactive materials are present and real.

Enhancing nuclear security and ensuring that radiological and nuclear materials and weapons do not fall into the hands of rogue actors and terrorists are not only hugely valuable ends in themselves, but also could serve as confidence- and security-building measures in a region that lacks both security and confidence. In particular, establishing a regional code of conduct on securing radiological and nuclear materials is a meaningful and more achievable goal than other pursuits tied to traditional or hard defense and security matters.

This report first assesses the regional challenges to nuclear and radiological security within the Middle East—namely the expansion of civilian nuclear power, the nature of radioactive material, the lack of a security culture in the region, and most prominently the threat of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism. It then provides an overview of the existing successful mechanisms that regional states have developed to enhance cooperation against radiological and nuclear threats. It concludes by proposing a regional framework on security in response to such threats, one that would not only build on existing international mechanisms against these threats but also recognize and address the specific needs of the Middle East and its challenging strategic realities.

Challenges to Nuclear and Radiological Security

Major disruptions in the geostrategic balance in the Middle East drastically affect global oil prices, as the decrease of petroleum exports from Libya demonstrates.1 Factors contributing to concerns over the sustainability of energy supply include the impact of environmental issues such as climate change, high reliance on fossil fuels, the globalization of energy demand, cyber-vulnerability of critical infrastructures, and the security of energy supplies in the Persian Gulf, where 60 percent of the world’s conventional oil reserves are located.2

Several governments in the region see nuclear energy as a long-term solution to fossil-fuel dependence. Increased energy demand and the economics of nuclear power are the main drivers behind this heightened interest in nuclear energy. Another factor is climate change mitigation—states are likely to expand nuclear power generation to ensure sufficient energy production while reducing emissions. And Middle Eastern countries have stated an interest in using nuclear energy to power desalinization. From 1971 to 2014, energy use in the Middle East and North Africa grew 502 percent, and the trend continues apace today.3 In the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), energy consumption outpaces the growth of both gross domestic product and population, and such countries are expected to need 40 percent more electricity over the next five years to meet the demand.4 Emerging nuclear power countries include Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Even though these countries vary in how far their nuclear plans and infrastructure are developed, the region will likely establish several new plants in the next few decades. The Emirates’ first nuclear power plant, the Barakah, has finished construction and will begin operating in 2018.5 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 2023.6 Egypt’s deal with Rosatom plans to build four nuclear reactors in the next twelve years.7 Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has an ambitious plan to build sixteen reactors by 2040.8

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