Britain's 'nuclear exports' to Bahrain

Nuclear reactors are one of the UK's top exports to Bahrain, according to a document published this week by the British Foreign Office. The claim appears in an official guide, "Doing Business in Bahrain", which aims to promote trade with the repressive Gulf kingdom.

The guide lists "nuclear reactors, boilers and mechanical appliances" as Britain's most lucrative sales to Bahrain. 

Given the recent negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme, this would be big news if it's true – especially considering that Bahrain is not known to possess any nuclear reactors. It had been planning to have a nuclear power station in operation by 2017 but the plans were apparently put on hold in 2012.

However, it does appear to have continuing nuclear aspirations. At an IAEA conference in Vienna last September, a Bahraini official spoke of "the importance of optimising the uses of atomic energy to achieve people’s aspirations to development, security and peace and protect the environment" and talked about cooperation between Bahrain and the UN in "training national experts".

It is very unlikely, though, that Britain has actually sold Bahrain any nuclear reactors. Britain's total exports to Bahrain last year were just under £300 million and in 2013 sales in the "nuclear reactors, boilers and mechanical appliances" category amounted to only £79 million – not enough to pay for a single reactor, let alone a plurality of them.

One possibility could be that Britain is providing some help with the preliminary stages of a nuclear programme. A WikiLeaks document from 2010, for instance, revealed that Bahrain had been hiring consultants to look into the possibility of developing nuclear energy. It said:

"The GOB [Government of Bahrain] has hired Freshfields Bruckhaus Derringer of London as a legal consultant, and is in the process of tendering a bid for an energy consultant, to which 15 companies have responded, to provide background studies. Both Abdullah and Mohammed bin Mubarak acknowledged the possibility that there may not be a suitable site in Bahrain for a nuclear plant; therefore one of the first orders of business for the new consultant will be a siting study.

"Despite the fact that nuclear power may not be a possibility in Bahrain, Abdullah said that the GOB was moving ahead to establish the framework to support such a program."

Another possibility – and perhaps the most likely one – is that the Foreign Office didn't mean to imply Britain has been selling reactors to Bahrain and that "nuclear reactors, boilers and mechanical appliances" simply refers to one of the government's export classification categories. In other words, the sales might consist entirely of boilers and other mechanical devices but would still be listed under a heading that includes nuclear reactors.

Even if that's what happened, it's strange that no one in the Foreign Office spotted the political implications of what they were saying. Someone in Whitehall needs to do some explaining.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 25 July 2015