ENEC CEO talks about the UAE's progress towards a nuclear future
ENEC CEO Mohamed Al Hammadi talks to Adam Lane about the UAE’s progress towards a nuclear future
The UAE’s Barakah nuclear project is easily the biggest utilities project currently underway in the entire Middle East. Not only is the project massive in terms of expenditure – the reported project costs sit at around US $20 billion – but the scheme is also pioneering new ground as the first civilian nuclear power programme in the region.
With a budget of such scale, and the weight of international attention to bear, the UAE’s task might be seen as at least a little intimidating.
However Mohamed Al Hammadi, CEO of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), says that the programme’s methodical approach and its commitment to its foundation policy on peaceful nuclear energy has meant that the project has so far run exactly to schedule and attracted praise from all quarters.
“We are breaking new ground – it’s a new programme; the first of its kind. But we have a commitment to the main principles laid down in the founding policy document. We are committed to transparency, to safety and to quality. The way we’ve driven this project from the early days was with a clear focus on these key principles.”
This focus has certainly made for a busy few years, as Al Hammadi explains the programme’s development, and what is currently being worked on.
“As with any nuclear power plant in the world, you must do your construction licensing process. That took almost two years. We capitalised on the Korean reference plant – Shin Kori 3&4 – which has already been engineered and worked on in Korea. We adjusted the engineering requirements to account, for example, for the differences in operating temperature, and then we submitted this to our regulators.
“The Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) took around 16 to 17 months for the review. We gave them 9,000 pages of documents, and they asked us 1,900 questions. “And when a question came, a team of engineers would need to review it and go back with a final response.
“This comprehensive review by FANR involved a team of international experts that expanded and contracted depending on the part of the application being considered. During the review, the Fukushima incident in Japan drew renewed attention to the nuclear industry, and ENEC were reported to have reviewed aspects of the new plant’s design.
However, Al Hammadi emphasises that ENEC made only a minor proposal for change to the design as a result of a comprehensive study of the event.
“Fukushima was designed in the 1960s and was commissioned in 1971, so it was forty years old. It was in the last year of operation. With the accident, it performed as per the standard, but of course there was a completely unexpected level of disaster – the flooding and tsunami – that cleared all the supporting infrastructure.”
By contrast, the APR 1400 design that is being built at Barakah is a third generation reactor. This means that it has much enhanced safety systems that required no major changes to account for an incident of the magnitude of Fukushima.
“The plant has very high safety as a third generation reactor. It is an excellent design, and we will also see it tested and proven before our plant is up and running as Shin Kori will be commissioned next year. So our plant will have a few years to learn from the Koreans before the first unit comes online.
“The Koreans, over a couple of decades, reached a level of safety and operation of their power plants which is at a very high international standard - the highest standards currently available. It’s on par with the US power plants which are also run to very high standards.”
With the construction licence approved, ENEC has started pouring the safety concrete for the reactor building. Whilst evidently pleased that actual work is underway after all the preparatory effort, Al Hammadi says that the climatic conditions in Abu Dhabi create their own challenges for this stage.
“It’s a hectic process. You need to keep pouring the concrete non-stop, and concrete actually gets hotter as you pour it. So you have to pour it with ice – we actually have an ice factory next to our power plant – so that it is poured at around 7-9 degrees, whilst the temperature outside can be 50 degrees.
“The team has done the fifth pouring already. The biggest so far was 2,000 cubic metres, and it is going really well. We will continue to pour concrete at unit number one, and then pouring at number two will start in one year. We are laser-focusing our team on the first unit, which will be up and running safely in 2017, with the power dispatched to the grid.”
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Recent news on the project has arrived at a canter, with one important milestone being the agreement of nuclear fuel contracts valued at around US $3 billion. Al Hammadi says that one key part of the founding policy statement for the programme was ensuring security of supply for nuclear fuel.
“The nuclear industry has a very good security of supply. Once you have your fuel, you don’t need to ship any fuel to the country for 18 months. After 18 months you change one third of the fuel, and you can be completely self-sufficient for a couple of years. There’s no comparison with it. With a gas plant, for example, if the gas pipe is off, the plant is off.
“With a nuclear plant you can switch it on, and run it safely and economically for 18 months, with almost zero CO2 emissions.”
Al Hammadi says that security was the central focus when negotiating supply contracts.
“The key with suppliers is that we diversify, so there is a lot of intertwined supply where we are not solely dependent on anybody. We have a flexibility of supply from ‘friendly nations’ and we have made sure that our fuel supply is reliable and high quality, so even if there is a compromise, we have alternative suppliers.”
“The process has taken over a year and we are really glad with the results we’ve achieved. These contracts run for 15 years, so they are lengthy commitments. There are more than 400 nuclear power plants around the world, so the fuel industry is very mature. We are new to the market, but we were able to negotiate supplies.”
Al Hammadi also says that ENEC is not closing any options when it comes to spent nuclear fuel storage.
“Leasing the fuel is still on the table; long-term storage is also being judged by the government; reprocessing the fuel is being looked at. We are intelligent enough not to close any doors so that we can continuously weigh and evaluate all the options.”
The other recent development attracting headlines was the announcement of a $2 billion loan approval from the United States’ Ex-Im Bank. Al Hammadi says that another core part of the founding policy was that the programme should be international, as well as run to very high standards.
“The proof of our very high standards is that international lenders are willing to put their money into the project. It’s a good testimony and I’m really proud to have the US Ex-Im approving our project to be part of their portfolio of investments.
It shows how well this programme is run, and how it is being recognised around the world – not just by the nuclear industry, but also by the financial sector. We also have a line-up of other commitments that we have down the road, so we are really proud to have this kind of endorsement.”
The UAE’s programme has been widely praised by many, not least the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has been cooperating closely on the project.
“We have used the IAEA’s milestone document, which is the document they wrote for any new nation embarking on a civilian nuclear programme. We adopted their methodology and that’s what we have used for our road map and strategy document.
“A mission from the IAEA team came in to check the programme – our regulator, our infrastructure, our legislation, everything – and we’ve really exceeded their expectations. They have actually taken one or two lessons learned from the UAE, such as stakeholder management, for their own reports.”
With such attention on the programme, it is important also to consider the advantages that nuclear can bring to the grid.
“We add value to the energy mix with security of supply; from the environmental perspective; by being an economical energy source, and by providing base load.
“It’s a big capital investment in nuclear power, but when you build a nuclear power plant you have already put 85% of your capital investment in, and when you run it for 60 years, your cost will either be constant or go down. It really becomes a very economical source of electricity.”