Correction to This Article
ยท A May 12 Page One article incorrectly said that the United Arab Emirates had signed a deal with a French company to build two nuclear reactors. Despite a January announcement to the contrary by a French industrial consortium, a formal agreement has not been reached.

Spread of Nuclear Capability Is Feared

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

VIENNA -- At least 40 developing countries from the Persian Gulf region to Latin America have recently approached U.N. officials here to signal interest in starting nuclear power programs, a trend that concerned proliferation experts say could provide the building blocks of nuclear arsenals in some of those nations.

At least half a dozen countries have also said in the past four years that they are specifically planning to conduct enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear fuel, a prospect that could dramatically expand the global supply of plutonium and enriched uranium, according to U.S. and international nuclear officials and arms-control experts.

Much of the new interest is driven by economic considerations, particularly the soaring cost of fossil fuels. But for some Middle Eastern states with ready access to huge stocks of oil or natural gas, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the investment in nuclear power appears to be linked partly to concerns about a future regional arms race stoked in part by Iran's alleged interest in such an arsenal, the officials said.

"We are concerned that some countries are moving down the nuclear [weapons] path in reaction to the Iranians," a senior U.S. government official who tracks the spread of nuclear technology said in an interview. He declined to speak on the record because of diplomatic sensitivities. "The big question is: At what point do you reach the nuclear tipping point, when enough countries go nuclear that others decide they must do so, too?"

Although the United Arab Emirates has a proven oil reserve of 100 billion barrels, the world's sixth-largest, in January it signed a deal with a French company to build two nuclear reactors. Wealthy neighbors Kuwait and Bahrain are also planning nuclear plants, as are Libya, Algeria and Morocco in North Africa and the kingdom of Jordan.

Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, last year announced plans to purchase a nuclear reactor, which it says is needed to produce electricity; it is one of 11 Middle Eastern states now engaged in starting or expanding nuclear power programs.

Meanwhile, two of Iran's biggest rivals in the region, Turkey and Egypt, are moving forward with ambitious nuclear projects. Both countries abandoned any pursuit of nuclear power decades ago but are now on course to develop seven nuclear power plants -- four in Egypt and three in Turkey -- over the next decade.

Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, told a recent gathering of Middle Eastern and nonproliferation experts that his country's decision was unrelated to Iran's nuclear activities. But he acknowledged that commercial nuclear power "does give you technology and knowledge," and he warned that a nuclear arms race may be inevitable unless the region's leaders agree to ban such weapons.

"We continue to take the high road, but there isn't much oxygen there, and it is very lonely," Fahmy told the gathering in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He added a prediction: "Without a comprehensive nuclear accord, you will have a proliferation problem in the Middle East, and it will be even worse in 10 years than it is today."

Many countries involved in nuclear expansion have stressed their peaceful intentions. Some, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, publicly vowed never to pursue uranium enrichment or fuel reprocessing -- technologies that can be used to create fissile materials for nuclear weapons. But some arms-control experts say the sudden interest cannot be fully explained by rising oil prices.

"This is not primarily about nuclear energy. It's a hedge against Iran," said Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear policy and author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons." "They're starting their engines. It takes decades to build a nuclear infrastructure, and they're beginning to do it now. They're saying, 'If there's going to be an arms race, we're going to be in it.' "

'90 Percent' Is Deterrence

Although U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Iran halted its research into making nuclear weapons five years ago, the Islamic republic still seeks to make enriched uranium with centrifuges at its vast underground facility at Natanz. It is now operating about 3,000 centrifuges and plans to increase the number to 50,000.

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