« North Korea poised to launch large-scale cyberattacks, says new report | Main | U.A.E. Denies Yemen Rebels Fired Missile at Abu Dhabi Nuclear Plant »

A Yemeni rebel claim highlights the risk of nuclear power in the Middle East

As reported by Ali Ahmad in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The article begins:

Earlier this week, Yemen’s Houthi rebel group claimed it had launched a missile at the Barakah nuclear power plant in the western region of Abu Dhabi, in retaliation for the Saudi-led blockade imposed on Yemen. Abu Dhabi is part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a member of the coalition that has been targeting the Houthis.

UAE officials immediately denied that the attack had taken place, and the Houthis have not provided any evidence to support their claim. However, regardless of the claim’s validity, and despite the lack of evidence, the incident is emblematic of the dangers of nuclear power in the Middle East. The UAE should take it very seriously. Even if this “attack” was merely a propaganda ploy, nuclear power facilities will always be potential targets for enemy states and non-state actors, including terrorist groups. In the Middle East, in particular, there is a history of attacks on nuclear sites during regional conflicts.

The article also warns that "rosy projections about nuclear power’s benefits gloss over the major security vulnerability the plant will create."

It continues:

The country’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority has said that "the UAE's air defense system is capable of dealing with any threats.” But downplaying the vulnerability of the site and the security risks of nuclear power could prove to be very costly. Nuclear power plants are natural targets in armed conflicts, particularly with the emergence of non-state actors such as Yemen’s Houthis.

The article concludes:

The issue of security is one of the reasons Israel has refrained from building nuclear power plants on its territory, although it has two small reactors, ostensibly for research. There is reason for caution, as the Middle East has a history of attacks on nuclear facilities, including one launched by Israel itself: In 1980, Iran bombed the under-construction Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq but failed to destroy it; a year later, an attack by the Israeli air force succeeded in reducing the reactor to rubble. Likewise, Iraq repeatedly bombed the partially-completed Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Because these reactors were still under construction, the attacks did not lead to a release of radiation, but there have also been attacks on Israel’s Dimona reactor in the southern Negev desert. In 1991, Iraq fired Scud missiles at the reactor, but missed the target. Today, the facility is in missile range from Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although the site is heavily protected, in 2012 the Israel Atomic Energy Commission announced that the reactor would be shut down should war break out, to minimize danger from attacks.

Given this history, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of a successful attack on a nuclear facility, the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries should seriously consider the risks when deciding whether to pursue their own forays into nuclear power.

See the full article. 

The article echos warning made by Bennett Ramberg in his 1984 book Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril.

Ali Ahmad is a scholar-in-residence and director of the Energy Policy and Security Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. His work covers nuclear security, energy policy, and economics, with a focus on the Middle East. Prior to joining AUB, Ali was a research fellow at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, where he studied prospects for nuclear energy in the Middle East and nuclear diplomacy with Iran.