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A crush of developing nations trying to gatecrash the nuclear power club has prompted fears of a subsequent race to develop nuclear weapons.

The UN nuke regulator, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), says that it has recently been approached by 40 countries, all expressing an interest in nuclear power. According to an article in today's Washington Post, at least six of these confirmed specifically that they would commence enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear fuel, causing raised eyebrows at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters.

Nuclear power programmes involving enrichment or reprocessing have the potential to be weapons efforts, as well as producing fuel for electricity generation. A country is much less likely to be suspected of immediate aspirations toward nuclear armament if it is willing to import manufactured fuel elements from overseas. The ability to enrich or reprocess, by contrast, offers the potential to produce weapons-grade material.

"We are concerned that some countries are moving down the nuclear [weapons] path in reaction to the Iranians," an unnamed US official told the Post.

It appears that oil and gas-rich Arab states in the Gulf region view the current, active Iranian enrichment programme with concern. The mostly Sunni Arab governments don't want to see their Persian Shi'ite rivals emerge as the sole nuclear power in the Gulf.

US intelligence recently assessed that the Iranian weapons programme - whose existence had always been denied - was shut down five years ago, but enrichment activities continue in the underground bunker complex at Natanz. It's also been suggested by the US and Israel that Iran's ally Syria was engaged on a secret weapons programme at its Al Kibar plant, lately destroyed in a mysterious Israeli bombing raid.

The Post reports that Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE are all moving forward with nuclear programmes, despite substantial reserves of fossil fuel. Bahrain and the UAE have said that they don't want enrichment or reprocessing facilities, but anti-nuclear campaigners are sceptical, noting that these could be added later.

Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, sees the current fad for reactors as a sort of preliminary arms race in advance of any arms, with Gulf nations taking up a position where they could move towards nuclear weapons if required without a decades-long runup.

"You don't really even need to have a nuclear weapon," he said at a recent conference. "It's enough to buy yourself an insurance policy by developing the capability."

Other nations, more widely scattered, may well be applying for IAEA assistance due to the present sky-high prices of fossil fuels. Under international treaty, a country willing to foreswear weapons development is entitled to technical help in starting a power programme. This can include enrichment activities, though in fact there is usually serious reluctance by many established nuclear states to help on this front.

It's even thought that oil countries might see nuclear electricity as a paying proposition, as oil burned to make electricity at home doesn't make them as much money as it would if sold at high prices to Western customers.

"Why would these Gulf states want to go nuclear? Because they know their oil will only become more valuable as global demand increases," said the IAEA's Alan McDonald.

"It may be more cost-effective to sell oil to Americans driving SUVs than to burn it domestically." ®

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