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Atomic Ambition: UAE nuclear development in focus

The UAE's quest for nuclear power generation under the microscope

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The UAE is investing around $20 billion in its phase one nuclear power project.
The UAE is investing around $20 billion in its phase one nuclear power project.

Andrew White examines the UAE’s quest for nuclear power generation, a year on from Japan’s catastrophic experience.

It has been 13 months since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was devastated by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and then hit by a tsunami, causing widespread destruction at the six-reactor complex.

In the days following the quake, three of the plant’s reactors melted down and Japan’s leaders were forced to draw up plans for the evacuation of Tokyo, amid fears that a 150km-wide plume of radioactive material would cast a dark shadow across the Land of the Rising Sun.

In the apocalyptic aftermath of 11 March 2011, nuclear safety once again moved to the top of the global agenda: attitudes towards nuclear power hardened in Europe and elsewhere, and Italy, Germany and Switzerland all announced plans to phase out or scale back their nuclear energy ambitions.

In the Gulf, Kuwait has since announced that it is cancelling its proposed civilian nuclear power programme.

However, other decision-makers are pushing ahead with their own plans to establish nuclear power as the energy source of the future for the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf nations. While the UAE leads the race to build the Arab world’s first nuclear reactors, has anything really changed as a result of the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl?

“Everyone goes back to the drawing board after a disaster like Fukushima, to study what happened and to try and ensure that the same thing cannot happen again,” says Dr Hans-Holger Rogner, section head at the Department of Nuclear Energy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “It has certainly affected the industry, yet those Gulf countries pursuing nuclear power will not be thrown off course.”

In December 2010 the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), the independent nuclear watchdog, received a 9,000-page construction licence application from the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), for the country’s first reactors.

Braka Units 1 and 2 are the first of four proposed reactors, at a total cost of $20 billion, the construction contract for which was awarded in 2009 to a Korean consortium led by KEPCO.

The application is currently under review by a team of 60 people in the US, France and the UAE, and while ENEC has said it hopes to get a green light by July, FANR insists it will not be rushed into a decision. Moreover, FANR insists the Fukushima disaster has prompted changes to the original plans.

“Anybody who says that Fukushima didn’t change our thinking is wrong,” says Ayhan Evrensel, a spokesperson for FANR. “It changed everybody’s thinking, and as a result of Fukushima we are all looking for more safety in depth, and more active safety measures.“

He points to a raft of design changes to ENEC’s application in the wake of Fukushima, including moving the proposed reactors to higher ground, to make the plant more robust in the face of natural hazards, a loss of electrical power to the site, and other serious incidents.

Not all observers are entirely convinced that the ‘Fukushima factor’ has prompted a significant upgrade of ENEC’s plans. “There have been a few studies into what they can do to tighten up regulations, and there has been a bit of tweaking of rules and safety measures and procedures,” contends Samuel Ciszuk, an energy economics analyst with UK-based consultancy KBC.

“A cynic would say it’s all to calm the [local] population, and although I think there’s probably more to it than that, the basic direction hasn’t changed and the programmes that were in motion seem to be moving forward anyway.”

In March FANR did grant approval for ENEC to prepare the groundwork at the proposed site. Braka Units 1 and 2 will be located in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, around 300km west of the UAE capital, and are based largely on the safety analysis done for two units in South Korea, on which the Braka reactors are modelled.

The groundwork, which includes the creation of a smooth, flat surface at the bottom of the excavation, the installation of waterproofing material and the installation of encasement piping and protective layers of concrete, will keep ENEC engineers busy while it awaits the regulator’s decision.

“It allows us to maintain our momentum,” said Fahad Al Qahtani, a spokesman at ENEC, on the news. “It allows us to do some of the necessary work we need to do in order to stick to our schedule, and the next milestone we are hoping for is the approval of the construction licence application.”

Gulf decision makers have taken a realpolitik stance in response to safety concerns raised in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The region’s geological makeup is vastly different to that of Japan – while the possibility of an earthquake striking the Gulf can never be discounted entirely, the chances of a significant tremor are considered remote.

Moreover, Gulf rulers and their cabinet ministers don’t have to worry about uneasy electorates breathing down the necks of their kanduras. The Arab Spring may have brought some of the region’s anxieties bubbling violently to the surface, but the safety issues surrounding nuclear power are far, far down on the list of popular discontents.

As a result, while regulators in the UAE insist that lessons have been learnt from Fukushima, the country is unlikely to miss the ambitious deadlines it has set for the completion of its first nuclear reactors.

This determination is underpinned by hard-nosed economics. The hydrocarbon-rich Gulf states are reluctant to burn valuable oil reserves to satisfy domestic demand that is both heavily subsidised, and soaring.

“There’s a straightforward financial incentive,” says Dr Rogner at IAEA. “They are producing oil at a cost of around $5 per barrel, and you need three barrels of oil to produce the equivalent of one barrel of electricity.

If you use that oil for domestic power generation, it’s so heavily subsidised that you will get about $15, when you could be selling those barrels for $300 on the international market. It’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation.”

To meet its nuclear development targets, the UAE has relied heavily on international support, making great efforts to emphasise its adherence to international best practice standards as directed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

And although the UAE may be benefiting from a higher oil price as a consequence of Iran’s brinkmanship with the West over its own nuclear ambitions, the country is very much determined to develop its own nuclear energy programmes arm-in-arm with observers, engineers, consultants and tech giants from Britain, the US, France, Japan and South Korea.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, and the subsequent scaling-back or cancellation of proposed civilian nuclear power programmes around the world, the international competition to secure a stake in still-active markets such as the UAE has never been fiercer.

“[For foreign partners] there is still the hope for lucrative deals, especially at a time when demand elsewhere around the world may have cooled down somewhat,” says Ciszuk at KBC. “When most places are holding off on nuclear technology it becomes even more important for prospective foreign partners to fight for whatever they can get: to keep up export sales and revenue, to keep research and design going, and to remain in the race.”

The UAE has so far struck international partnerships with nuclear bodies including the IAEA, the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, the US Department of Energy, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the French Nuclear Safety Authority, allowing it access to information, resources and expertise from countries which have long-established civilian nuclear power programmes.

In addition, the UAE’s long-term agreement with KEPCO will enable engineers to work on both the UAE plants and the reactors upon which they are based: the Shin Kori 3 and 4 plants, currently nearing completion in the south east of South Korea.

“The UAE can probably offer lucrative salaries but they can’t just pick any mix of people from any mix of countries because you need to have people who are familiar with the particular technologies,” says Ciszuk at KBC. “They need a lot of South Korean help and that would have come with the [KEPCO] package.”

At the same time, the UAE will eventually have to learn to go it alone. “International cooperation and assistance is a prerequisite because the Gulf states don’t have any expertise in the area of nuclear power,” says Dr Rogner at IAEA.

“International cooperation has been instrumental in getting the UAE nuclear programme going; without international cooperation and assistance these [Gulf] countries would take several decades to get where they want to be.

“Moving forward, the big obstacle will be human resources, and the Gulf nations have to build up their internal knowledge base as they cannot depend forever on foreign intelligence and outsourcing,” he continues.

“There is a transition period, and if they organise that intelligently and smoothly, then it can be done over the next 15 or 20 years. But trying to outsource everything, for instance through the 40-year contract with KEPCO, cannot work forever. You have to do it yourself eventually.”

Kuwait drops out of the race
While plans to build nuclear reactors in the UAE develop apace, in February Kuwait announced it is abandoning its pursuit of civilian nuclear power production.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Dr Mohammad Al-Sabah confirmed that the small Gulf state had scrapped plans to build four nuclear reactors by 2022; reportedly the decision was heavily influenced by the March 11, 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan.

Kuwaiti government officials at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) said the Fukushima incident had resulted in public scrutiny of the necessity of building nuclear power plants in the oil-rich nation. They added that there was also the question of where Kuwait would store radioactive waste.

Kuwait’s bid to produce nuclear power can be traced back to 2009, when the country signed deals with the US, France and Russia to boost bilateral cooperation in developing an indigenous civilian atomic energy infrastructure.

In September 2010 the Kuwait National Nuclear Energy Committee (KNNEC) said it was evaluating plans for four 1,000 megawatt (MW) reactors; however in the wake of the Fukushima disaster Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah ordered that the KNNEC be dissolved, its duties undertaken by the KISR, and greater attention be paid to utilising nuclear power for research and medical purposes as opposed to large-scale power generation.

Whether Kuwait’s proposed nuclear power stations would have been delivered even without the Fukushima factor is uncertain. Decades of underinvestment in power generation capacity has left Kuwait n urgent need of a long-term solution, and yet the country’s powerful but febrile parliament has proved an often insurmountable obstacle to infrastructure development.

Many observers had questioned whether a nuclear programme would be approved by parliament even if it had been given the thumbs up by the government.

“I’m not particularly surprised the nuclear plan was scrapped,” says Samuel Ciszuk at KBC. “In Kuwait you have a popular participation in politics that you don’t really see anywhere else in the Gulf, and when parliament decides it doesn’t want something, it usually gets its way.

The track record with getting big projects underway in Kuwait is appalling, just because of that constant tug-of-war between parliament and government.

“If they can’t even get their act together to build an oil refinery... then how could they have got a nuclear programme going?”

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