Israel and Multilateral Nuclear Approaches in the Middle East
Countries in the Middle East have cited a range of reasons for their resurgent or new interest in developing nuclear power, including the need to diversify energy sources and to meet increasing electricity demands. There are concerns that the interest is driven at least partly by Iran’s nuclear advances and suspicions that it may have a military dimension. Although nuclear power advancement in the Middle East can be viewed a priori with concern from a proliferation perspective, it could offer an opportunity for a net nonproliferation gain if technological development progresses down the right path of transparency and collaboration. The equation is straightforward. If these budding programs in the Middle East develop as completely separate national programs, mistrust is bound to increase. If they develop more in parallel with each other—with collaboration on such elements as information exchanges, transparency of plans, safety and security issues, and, potentially, fuel cycle activities—there is a real chance that nuclear development can serve instead as a tool to increase trust and confidence, feeding into a wider security-building agenda in the region.
Israel is among the countries in the region that have expressed a renewed interest in nuclear energy. National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau used the opportunity of a civilian nuclear power conference in Paris in March to reiterate the country’s interest in developing nuclear power. For the past 40 years, Israel has seen nuclear energy as an integral goal in its energy planning, but it has not yet introduced nuclear power into its energy mix. The Web site of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) says that Israel decided in the 1970s that “an option to produce electricity using nuclear reactors should be prepared and maintained.” The Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) concluded in the 1980s that a site in the northern Negev desert near the town of Shivta would be suitable for a nuclear power plant. In his Paris speech, Landau confirmed that the Shivta site is still being maintained from a scientific and technical infrastructure point of view. The current plan is to have a two-unit nuclear power plant with a generation capacity of 1,200-1,500 megawatts operational by 2020.
As more and more states in the Middle East are jumping on the nuclear renaissance bandwagon, there is an urgent need to build nuclear confidence in the region. Instead of each state having a go-it-alone policy developing its own nuclear fuel cycle, which is likely to increase mistrust and the risk of proliferation, nuclear transparency and collaboration should be the norm. If the intentions behind these new programs are open and clear from the start, the countries involved are more likely to avoid misperceptions. Furthermore, by collaborating more closely on nuclear energy issues, the states stand to gain in economic and technical terms. With increased nuclear confidence through transparency measures and collaborative projects, the region also can reap many benefits regarding security building. There are signs that nuclear cooperation is possible. Regional projects such as SESAME and Israel’s assistance with nuclear power-plant siting in Jordan are evidence. Education is one area in which Israel could contribute to regional nuclear development; safety and security culture is another.
The next step is to promote collaborative efforts on nuclear energy, through joint training programs, exchanges of information and experience, and even talks on joint fuel-cycle facilities. Nuclear confidence building is integrally linked to the wider security agenda in the Middle East, including the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.