Uzi Landau
Christophe Ena  /  AP
Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau says his country needs nuclear power as an energy source.
updated 3/9/2010 5:38:08 PM ET 2010-03-09T22:38:08

Is the Middle East about to go officially nuclear?

Dual announcements Tuesday by bitter rivals Israel and Syria that they want to pursue atomic power plants could complicate the diplomatic storm over Iran's nuclear program and fuel a widening web of suspicion across the Middle East.

In a region where few trust each other to keep a nuclear program peaceful, Israel — which is widely thought to have a secret nuclear weapons program — is unlikely to accept Syrian assurances its program is civilian. Looming in the background Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also have ambitions to develop nuclear power.

Israel's Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau dodged regional politics in announcing his country's intentions at a nuclear energy conference in Paris, painting them instead in earth friendly tones.

"We need this energy source because it is environmentally clean," Landau told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference. Nuclear fission contributes far less to global warming than burning of coal, but it worries many because of the risks of long-term waste storage and proliferation of potentially deadly nuclear technology.

Building atomic power plants would enable Israel to reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels and meet its long-term energy needs. Such construction could also increase pressure on Israel to open its facilities to inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would shine a spotlight on an area the country has long kept secret.

The Iran factor
The Jewish state is used to being accused of nuclear hypocrisy. It demands a nuclear-free Iran when no one doubts Israel has nuclear weapons of its own.

Charges of double standards could intensify — making it harder for Israel to argue that Iran must open all its facilities to world scrutiny.

Landau said his country would open any nuclear power plants to international inspections — but said "we don't see a reason" to allow inspectors into sites that are believed to house Israel's nuclear weapons, or to sign the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The situation could also complicate U.S.-led efforts to level a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran for refusing to cooperate with nuclear inspectors. Tehran says its uranium enrichment activities are peaceful but many world powers suspect the Islamic republic is seeking weapons.

"Israel's probably trying to create an exemption for itself, but I don't think people will buy it. Too many Arab countries and too many non-aligned countries would react pretty badly," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security.

The Iran standoff and Israel's own case illustrate how hard it is for the U.N. watchdog to keep nuclear technology confined to producing electricity and out of the arms sphere.

Rising energy demand
Syria, meanwhile, has its own nuclear ambitions.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, also at the Paris conference, said his country would like to consider alternative energy sources, "including nuclear energy," to meet rising demand.

So far those dreams appear distant. Syria has little know-how or money to invest in building nuclear power plants, which are enormously expensive. They do, however, reflect rising regional interest in the technology.

The United States is providing financing and training for nuclear power plans in Jordan. The United Arab Emirates in December awarded a South Korean consortium a contract to build energy-producing nuclear reactors. Egypt has two small nuclear reactors used for research and is pursuing power-producing reactors.

Israel has acted in the past to keep regional enemies from pursuing nuclear programs.

In 2008, Israeli warplanes struck a Syrian site the U.S. alleged was a plutonium-producing reactor secretly being constructed with help from North Korea. Syria has maintained the site was an unused military installation.

An Israeli raid in 1981 destroyed Iraq's partially built Osirak nuclear reactor.

Landau called Israel's need for nuclear energy "imminent" but gave no timeline for building a nuclear plant.

Regional cooperation?
Israeli energy expert Amit Mor estimated it would take 15 to 20 years for Israel to build a reactor. The country will also have to find someone willing to sell it the equipment to build the nuclear power plants, which could prove challenging since Israel is not a signatory to non-proliferation treaty.

India could be one source, as well as a possible example for Israel to follow. India has avoided signing the non-proliferation treaty but has developed nuclear energy and weapons with international help, including from the United States.

Landau said his country would like to build a reactor in cooperation with scientists and engineers from "our Arab neighbors" — a prospect that appears unlikely in the current atmosphere of particularly strained Arab-Israeli relations.

In the past Israel floated the possibility of cooperation with Egypt on nuclear energy; the current talk is of a possible French-Israeli-Jordanian project.

Jordanian officials dismissed the idea.

"It's too early to talk about any regional cooperation with Israel before a solution is found to the Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts," said Khaled Toukan, chief of Jordan's Atomic Energy Commission.

Landau met several months ago with the French Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo to discuss possible joint nuclear efforts. France derives more of its electricity from nuclear power than any other country and Paris sees export potential.

It was France that, beginning in the 1950s, helped Israel build its nuclear reactor at Dimona. Israel is believed to have used that reactor to construct a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Israel also has a smaller nuclear reactor for research at Nahal Soreq, not far from Tel Aviv.

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