UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality

September 2020

The United Arab Emirates on Aug. 1 became the first Arab country to operate a nuclear power plant when officials announced that the first of four planned reactors at the Barakah nuclear power station achieved criticality by completing a sustained fission reaction. According to the UAE leadership, once all four units at the Barakah plant are operational, nuclear power will account for a quarter of the country’s electricity and reduce the nation’s reliance on oil and gas.

The UAE’s nuclear progress has highlighted concerns about the security implications of an uptick in nuclear programs in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is in the early stages of developing its nuclear program, and Iran has a demonstrated uranium-enrichment capability. Israel has an assumed arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But according to Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation with expertise in the Persian Gulf region, the UAE nuclear program does not pose a proliferation risk. Abu Dhabi has taken deliberate measures to publicly signal the strictly peaceful application of its nuclear program, Esfandiary told Arms Control Today. These measures include the country’s decision to forgo uranium enrichment, among other things. The UAE is also a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has had an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in place since 2009. (See ACT, October 2019.)—JULIA MASTERSON