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How Safe Are The UAE’s Nuclear Power Plants?

How Safe Are The UAE’s Nuclear Power Plants?

In a speech in Abu Dhabi a few days ago, Sultan bin Ahmad Sultan Al Jaber, a minister of state in the UAE government and also chief executive of Abu D

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In a speech in Abu Dhabi a few days ago, Sultan bin Ahmad Sultan Al Jaber, a minister of state in the UAE government and also chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), drew attention to the nuclear power plants that will start supplying the country’s electricity grid for the first time later this year.

Al Jaber was speaking during what is billed as Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and said the development meant “the UAE will be the first country in the region to operate a safe commercial, peaceful nuclear power station.”

Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) is building four identical nuclear reactors at the Barakah site in the Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi emirate. Construction of the units is now close to completion. Once all four are on line they will be able to produce some 5.6GW of electricity.

Nuclear power is controversial in many parts of the world, but perhaps nowhere more than in the Gulf region, where it has been at the heart of the geopolitical storm involving Iran. Despite this, a number of other countries have been pursuing nuclear power, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, often attracting criticism due to the proliferation risk and possible environmental damage.

Despite Al Jaber’s reassuring words, not everyone is convinced of the safety of the plants under construction. Paul Dorfman, founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group, has raised a number of safety, security and environmental concerns about the reactors the UAE is building in partnership with Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), its subsidiary Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) and others.

In a report released in late December, called Gulf Nuclear Ambition: New Reactors in United Arab Emirates, he noted that cracks have been found in the containment buildings of all four reactors during the building process, necessitating a suspension of construction work while repairs were carried out.

KHNP has also been hit by a scandal over the use of counterfeit parts in its reactors and there has been a dispute between the Koreans and ENEC over the replacement of workers too.

Dorfman also points out that the reactor design being used at Barakah doesn’t contain safety features such as additional reactor containment or a core-catcher, “both of which are design features normally expected in all new nuclear reactors in Europe,” he says. Such features would help to limit the release of radiation in the event of an accident or a deliberate attack on the plants.

The chances of an attack cannot be ruled out, given that Yemeni rebels in the past claimed to have launched a cruise missile attack on the Barakah site, and given the missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities last year. A successful strike against Barakah, or an accident at the plant, would have major repercussions for the local population, not least because of the region’s reliance on desalinating seawater to provide drinking water.

The UAE insists its plans are safe. ENEC did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but on the same day the Dorfman report was released, Hamad Al Kaabi, the UAE’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued a statement saying his country was fully committed to international best practice on nuclear safety and security and had hosted 40 inspections and reviews of the Barakah plant over the past decade.

“The UAE is committed to upholding its 2008 nuclear policy principles of transparency, safety and security, sustainability and international cooperation,” he said.

As such, the UAE is pressing ahead with the development of nuclear energy which it says will, among other things, help it to meet its target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2050. ENEC says the Barakah plants will meet up to 25% of the UAE’s electricity demand when fully operational, reducing the country’s carbon emissions by 21 million tons a year in the process.

The loading of the first nuclear fuel assemblies into Unit 1 at Barakah is expected to take place in the first quarter of this year, once the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, the country’s nuclear watchdog, issues a license to ENEC’s operating and maintenance subsidiary Nawah Energy Company.

However, it is notable that KEPCO has yet to sign up any other customers for its reactor. Given the controversies over the Korean design, it is perhaps unsurprising the UAE is alone in adopting it. “The UAE contract remains South Korea’s one and only export order – with KEPCO and its subsidiary KHNP unable to replicate the Abu Dhabi contract elsewhere, despite major initiatives in Lithuania, Turkey, Vietnam and the UK,” says Dorfman.

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