WASHINGTON - At least 40 developing countries from the Persian Gulf region to Latin America have recently approached U.N. officials to signal interest in starting nuclear power programmes, The Washington Post reported Monday. The newspaper, citing proliferation experts, said the trend could provide the building blocks of nuclear arsenals in some of those nations. The Post said much of the interest in nuclear power is driven by economic considerations including the high cost of fossil fuels. However, some Middle Eastern countries with access to large stocks of oil or natural gas, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, appear to be investing in nuclear power partly because of concerns about a future regional arms race, it said. "We are concerned that some countries are moving down the nuclear (weapons) path in reaction to the Iranians," a senior U.S. government official who tracks the spread of nuclear technology claimed in an interview with The Post. The paper said he declined to speak on the record because of diplomatic sensitivities. "The big question is: At what point do you reach the nuclear tipping point, when enough countries go nuclear that others decide they must do so, too?" At least half a dozen countries also have said in the past four years that they are specifically planning to conduct enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear fuel, something that could expand the global supply of plutonium and enriched uranium, the Post said. Although the United Arab Emirates has a proven oil reserve of 100 billion barrels, the world's sixth-largest, in January it signed a deal with a French company to build two nuclear reactors. Wealthy neighbours Kuwait and Bahrain are also planning nuclear plants, as are Libya, Algeria and Morocco in North Africa and the kingdom of Jordan. Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, last year announced plans to purchase a nuclear reactor, which it says is needed to produce electricity; it is one of 11 Middle Eastern states now engaged in starting or expanding nuclear power programs. Meanwhile, two of Iran's neighbours in the region, Turkey and Egypt, are moving forward with ambitious nuclear projects. Both countries abandoned any pursuit of nuclear power decades ago but are now on course to develop seven nuclear power plants-four in Egypt and three in Turkey-over the next decade. Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, told a recent gathering of Middle Eastern and nonproliferation experts that his country's decision was unrelated to Iran's nuclear activities. But he acknowledged that commercial nuclear power "does give you technology and knowledge," and he warned that a nuclear arms race may be inevitable unless the region's leaders agree to ban such weapons. "We continue to take the high road, but there isn't much oxygen there, and it is very lonely," Fahmy told the gathering in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He added a prediction: "Without a comprehensive nuclear accord, you will have a proliferation problem in the Middle East, and it will be even worse in 10 years than it is today."