France's nuclear diplomacy

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The recent war games in the Gulf with France, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are connected to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's nuclear diplomacy. Sarkozy has been leveraging France's leading civilian nuclear technology to gain diplomatic, commercial and military advantages with countries in the Middle East, as well parts of Africa and Asia.

In response, nonproliferation experts have voiced their unease at the idea of exporting potentially nuclear bomb-usable technologies to proliferation-prone regions. In particular, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, recently expressed concern that Sarkozy's aggressive sales campaign in the Muslim world was moving "too fast." A number of German politicians have advised France to "weigh the risks," especially when it comes to nuclear deals with the Libyan regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Despite these fears, Sarkozy's nuclear energy proselytizing will not convert any new countries to acquiring nuclear weapons any time soon, if ever, and France will face financial and technical hurdles in building many nuclear power plants in these countries.

Since taking office last May, Sarkozy has signed deals worth billions of dollars to build nuclear power reactors or offer technical advice to a number of Arab states, including Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Indonesia and Turkey also have considered the purchase of such technology from France. Although the French nuclear group Areva reported strong annual profits in 2007 and pledged to double in size within the next five years, serious constraints limit the realization of the global promises made by Sarkozy and Areva's chief executive, Anne Lauvergeon. Aside from the obvious political and financial barriers that complicate the construction of nuclear power plants, many practical difficulties stand between France and its ambitious goals in the developing world.

With the exception of a regional uranium enrichment consortium proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, few of the states Sarkozy visited have plans to develop indigenous enrichment facilities. Overall, this is good news for nonproliferation because as long as individual countries do not enrich their own uranium, they are much less likely to acquire bomb-usable materials.

Consequently, these countries will depend on imported fuel. However, many port authorities restrict the transport of radioactive material, possibly resulting in fueling delays and higher fuel costs.

To these logistical hurdles add engineering challenges. The standardized, export-ready design of Areva's third-generation pressurized water reactors is an improvement from the past, but not without difficulty. The first attempt to build this reactor is two years behind schedule in Finland and considerably over budget, which is either the fault of Areva or the Finnish regulator TVO, depending on which displeased party one asks. Presently, the average lapse between the beginning of plant construction and that plant going on the power grid is five to seven years in states with experience in nuclear technologies, and more in countries without it.

Pushing any nuclear renaissance from Rabat to Riyadh even further into the future are labor and construction concerns. Specialized personnel and materials are necessary to build and run these facilities. Renewed global interest in nuclear power means that both are in short supply and pricier than ever. The expense of materials like high-quality cement and steel has driven the estimated cost of a new nuclear unit from $5 billion to $7 billion, prompting the cancellation of new plant orders in the United States. While Sarkozy hopes to expand nuclear energy throughout the Middle East, Areva continues to cater primarily to countries with extensive experience in nuclear power production, leaving even fewer resources to serve new clients.

The concerns elaborated here are exclusive neither to Areva as a company, nor to France as a state seeking to grow the market for its products. However, Sarkozy's nuclear diplomacy has come under particular scrutiny from those concerned about proliferation. While Sarkozy would not encourage proliferation, he does comprehend the prestige that countries associate with nuclear energy. He may have used this motivator to help entice client countries into other military deals.

At the same time as the nuclear deals were signed, France also recently announced arms sales and other military agreements with these countries in addition to following through with war games planned four years ago with Qatar and the UAE. In January, France signed a deal with the UAE to be the first Western nation other than the United States to have a military installation in the Gulf. Although nuclear proliferation among the Gulf states may take decades to materialize, militarization of the region has increased, partly due to a more assertive Iran.

Blowing away the smokescreen of nuclear proliferation fears reveals both the realities that are significantly limiting the global nuclear energy renaissance and the political power plays that are allowing France to emerge as a major force in the volatile Middle East.

Michelle M. Smith is a research associate for nuclear policy and Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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