Sarkozy wants everyone to have nuclear power - French nuclear power

Thursday, November 15, 2007

PARIS: Six months into his term, President Nicolas Sarkozy is aggressively pursuing a new policy to give Muslim countries access to nuclear power - and win lucrative contracts for France's energy champions in the process.

After signing a memorandum of understanding with Libya in the summer, Sarkozy struck a preliminary cooperation accord with Morocco last month. Diplomats say he is planning to discuss nuclear power during trips to Algeria in December and Saudi Arabia in January.

Between them, state-controlled nuclear power giant Areva and Electricité de France are also talking to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Yemen, Egypt, Qatar and Tunisia. Regional cooperation on nuclear power is a pillar of the president's diplomatic pet project - a Mediterranean Union gathering countries in North Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe into a bloc.

Sarkozy's strategy on nuclear power is emblematic of his declared ambition to conquer new markets and reassert influence in a region that is home to many former French colonies. It also goes to the heart of a 21st century dilemma: Rising concerns about energy security and climate change are fueling a global comeback in nuclear energy just as proliferation has surged to the top of the political agenda - particularly in relation to another Islamic country, Iran.

Indeed, the West - with Sarkozy playing a prominent role - is pressing for ever tighter sanctions against Tehran on suspicions that its nuclear power plan masks an effort to get the nuclear bomb.

"The growing interest in nuclear power requires an appropriate response in the non-proliferation system," Annalisa Gianella, personal representative on proliferation of Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said in a telephone interview. The challenge, she added, is to avoid increased military use.

Nowhere is this challenge more acute than in the Muslim world, where security concerns are inflated by growing Islamic militancy - and, in the case of some Sunni Arab nations, by rivalry with a Shiite Iran, plus suspicion of a nuclear-armed Israel. There is also a widespread perception that the West is reluctant to share nuclear technology - which in turn fosters militancy.

Sarkozy voiced the challenge quite starkly in a speech Aug. 27 outlining foreign policy priorities. "Preventing a confrontation between Islam and the West is helping Muslim countries, as France proposes, to access the energy of the future: nuclear power," he said. Failure to do so, he warned, would lead to "an explosion of terrorism."

Reaction has been mixed. Some security experts warn of terrorist groups targeting nuclear installations or transports, others of the rivalry between Arab nations and Iran on uranium enrichment, a technology that can produce weapons-grade material.

"The Saudis are terrified of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and will almost certainly try to acquire nuclear weapons, too," said Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Advisory Board in President George W. Bush's first term who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "We need to do a lot of work on safeguards before we start building reactors in countries where the risk of proliferation is high."

Gianella, by contrast, welcomed the French initiative "because the French are proving that there is no denial policy against Muslim countries." In an e-mailed response, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary of nuclear energy at the U.S. Energy Department observed more generally: "The United States supports the expansion of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes worldwide."

Out of 439 reactors now operating in 30 countries, only two are in a Muslim nation, Pakistan, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. A third plant is under construction in Pakistan with help from China, while Iran has been working on its first reactor with Russian support.

In recent months, at least a dozen other Muslim countries have expressed interest in nuclear power. Solana, attending a meeting of ministers from around the Mediterranean on Nov. 6, said he was "struck by the fact that in the past year countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Jordan have started ambitious nuclear programs, something that was unthinkable only two years ago."

The change has sent Western governments and international institutions scrambling to tighten policing without violating the right of signatories to the Nonproliferation Treaty to nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

The emerging consensus is that countries wanting to launch their own civilian program should get access to nuclear fuel, but not the enrichment technology that can yield nuclear fuel but also weapons-grade material.

Britain has floated the idea of international bonds to guarantee access to nuclear fuel. Solana, who is convening an international meeting on the issue in January, has urged the creation of an international enrichment center under "multilateral supervision" that gives "all states equal access to fuel at competitive prices." Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, has suggested that his agency could supervise an international enrichment site.

Meanwhile, developing countries want to avoid depending on a handful of wealthy nuclear powers, and companies in France, Russia, the United States or Japan are eager to secure their share of a new nuclear power market.

"If we don't sell nuclear energy to these countries, the Russians will," said François Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research.

Sarkozy has been the most vocal head of state in touting his country's nuclear know-how. According to an Areva employee who insisted on anonymity but had heard the remark, the chief executive, Anne Lauvergeon, joked that with Sarkozy in the Élysée palace, Areva could "get rid of its sales department."

For now, the most profitable markets for Areva and EDF are in East Asia, a company spokesman said. There are 33 reactors under construction worldwide, nearly half of them in Asia, according to the World Nuclear Association. Forty of 94 planned reactors are in China and India alone.

But North Africa and the Middle East are a tantalizing longer-term prospect: Several of the countries have gas and oil reserves and are awash in dollars thanks to high energy prices. They prefer to export their fossil fuel at high prices rather than using them up at home - and want to prepare for when reserves run out.

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