Suhail al-Mazrouei, Emirati Arabi Uniti (La Presse)

UAE Operates Nuclear Reactor

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently granted an operating license for its first nuclear reactor, the Barakah, hailed as the most historic moment, as the New Arab reported on February 17.

Why Does the UAE Want Nuclear Power?

The plant is aimed at meeting its population’s energy need, given that other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia are trying to reduce its dependence on oil by diversifying its energy sources. The Barakah power plant will reportedly operate four reactors with a total capacity of 5,600 megawatts. In a press conference in Abu Dhabi, Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) granted a 60-year license for the Nawah Energy Company to operate the first unit of the Barakah plant. Nawah is a subsidiary of the Nuclear Energy Corporation.

“Today marks a new chapter in our journey for the development of peaceful nuclear energy with the issuing of the operating license for the first [unit of] Barakah plant,” Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted.

Barakah Operations Were Delayed

The operation of the Barakah plant was supposed to start in 2017, but it was postponed due to security assessment concerns, and the operator did not grant the license at that time. The delay was to make sure adequate time for the international evaluation to check whether the plant had met the international safety standard.

“Consequently, the resulting projection for the start-up of Unit 1 operations reflects the time required for the plant’s nuclear operators to complete operational readiness activities and to obtain necessary regulatory approvals, all of which are all designed to ensure safe, sustainable nuclear operations after start-up,” Nawah said.

Abu Dhabi has repeatedly said its nuclear ambition was for a peaceful purpose” amid the ongoing tension in the Middle East. Also, the UAE announced that it had welcomed the visits of more than 40 inspections and the IAEA as well as the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) since 2010, as its commitment to transparency.

The Middle Eastern Demand for Nuclear Energy

The Middle East’s nuclear power plant capacity is expected to rise from 3.6 gigawatts (G.W.) in 2018 to 14.1 GW in 2028, thanks to the Middle East nations’ agreements with nuclear vendors.

The rise in the region’s nuclear capacity is due to the effort to reduce the dependence on fossil fuel, which comprised 97 percent of the Middle East electricity in 2017. The increase in population and economic growth have pushed the region to think about alternative energy sources besides oil and gas.

Which Other Countries are Building Nuclear Power Plants in the Middle East?

Turkey started its Akkuyu nuclear power plant at the end of 2017, and the first unit of the reactor is set to be completed in 2025.

Saudi Arabia, as one of the world’s largest oil-exporting countries, has expressed its willingness to build its nuclear reactor. However, the plan paves the way for the uranium enrichment that can be used for military purposes and sparks a global concern, given Iran’s decision to boost its uranium level after reducing its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal.

The Trump administration secretly expanded an agreement to share its nuclear plant technology to develop two nuclear plant factories. Such a move triggered opposition from U.S. lawmakers, arguing that it could lead to an arms race in the Middle East.

Questions Surrounding UAE Nuclear Plant’s Safety

In May pf 2019, the UAE’s neighbor Qatar expressed its worries that the UAE nuclear plant could pose a threat to regional stability, calling on the U.N. atomic energy agency to create a framework on nuclear security in the Middle East.

Qatar also said that the UAE technology is not tested yet as there is only one similar reactor operating; in South Korea. The UAE is building the plant in partnership with South Korea’s Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), its subsidiary Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), and others.

Paul Dorfman, the founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group, questioned the safety of the UAE nuclear reactors as cracks have been spotted in the UAE’s four reactors during the development process, as stated in the report titled “Gulf Nuclear Ambition: New Reactors in United Arab Emirates,”as Forbes reported.

The use of fake parts in its reactors has also put KHNP under sharp criticism as well as a dispute between the Koreans and Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) over the workers’ replacement, as Koreatimes reported.

Dorfman also revealed that the UAE reactors lack safety features such as core-catchers, commonly used in Europe to reduce the release of the radiation in the event of an accident.

In a region already filled with a wide range of tensions from the U.S-Iran conflict to the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen, the presence of more nuclear reactors will always trigger more questions than analyzing the energy impact.