The UAE's nuclear energy programme, which has been held up by the industry worldwide as a model for newcomers to nuclear energy, is facing its biggest challenges in the run in to its first reactor's start-up, scheduled for late 2017.
The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) has so far hit all of its milestones since construction began on the US$20 billion programme in 2012, and in June installed the plant’s second reactor vessel at the Barakah site in Abu Dhabi’s remote Western Region.
Now, however, the UAE’s programme moves into its most difficult final phase for the first reactor, in which a number of interlinked challenges could mean delays, according to well-placed sources.
The programme, which has a building budget in excess of $20bn, with another $20bn estimated cost to run the plant over its 60-year life according to figures reported in the media in 2009 at the time that tenders were being awarded, is strategically important for the UAE. It expects to generate up to 25 per cent of its growing electricity demand from nuclear power by 2020, when all four of its reactors are due to be fully operational.
The programme is also being closely scrutinised as an exemplar for the whole of the Middle East, where a number of countries are keen to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
“The UAE nuclear programme is very special as it is the first newcomer to start building in 27 years,” said Marta Ferrari, a nuclear engineer in the Nuclear Power Infrastructure Group of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. “Being the first in a long time, it was bound to get a lot of scrutiny and attention,” she added.
Although the first reactor is nearly 75 per cent complete and is on time and on budget, industry executives said that the last phase would be the toughest.
“With a nuclear plant it gets a lot more complicated at the end when all the pieces have to come together,” said an executive who was until recently one of Enec’s senior division heads, and who did not want to be quoted by name.
“The first 80 to 90 per cent is pretty standard construction,” added the local head of a Barakah subcontractor. “The last bit is the really hard part.”
As the project moves into that final stage, it faces three related issues that could cause delays and add costs, several industry executives said.
The first and most problematic challenge for Barakah is the fact that its prime contractor, Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco), has run into a series of difficulties at Shin Kori, 450 kilometres south-east of Seoul, where it is developing the prototype project for its APR-1400 reactor, the same model it is building at Barakah.
Barakah is reliant on Shin Kori reactors 3&4 for its operating procedures template, a crucial connection that is reflected in the fact that Kepco faces financial penalties under its Barakah contract if it misses milestones on the Shin Kori programme.
Second, the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) is coming under budget pressure at a time when it should be adding staff, according to a number of senior nuclear executives. FANR executives said privately that budget cuts would slow down the programme at some point.
Finally, the already complex final stage of any new nuclear programme is complicated further by the fact that the UAE uniquely blends systems and senior staff from a range of countries, and has other unique features that have to be accommodated.
The main threat to keeping Barakah on schedule is the fact that a combination of fraud and faulty parts has meant that Kepco’s Shin Kori 3&4 have been delayed by more than a year, and a start-up date remains uncertain.
“The UAE, certainly in order to meet the project timelines, is tied to the Korean procedures and processes across the board,” said the former Enec division head. “There had to be some changes to Barakah to account for the differences in seawater temperature, the dusty environment, and the high ambient summer air temperature ... and a different electrical system [but] the UAE plants are built on the same basic design.”
The Shin Kori project was already delayed in 2013 after safety-related control cabling installed by a Korean company, JS Cable, failed various tests. That came on the heels of an investigation that found falsified documentation on cabling on parts of the project and delayed start-up on Shin Kori reactors 3&4 to 2015 and 2016, respectively.
There were even further delays after a test run of Shin Kori 3 last November resulted in a nitrogen gas leak that killed three workers at Korea Hydro & Electric Power (KHEP), the plant operator.
South Korea’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission held two hearings in April but has deferred a decision about Shin Kori 3 until after it can determine if the problem has been fixed, according to Yonhap, South Korea’s state-funded news agency.
A new start-up date cannot be determined until the Korean companies negotiate with General Electric of the US, which has recalled the faulty valves that caused the November leak, Yonhap reported.
“GE expects the replacement process may take five or six months, but a specific time will be confirmed after we complete negotiations with the company,” KHEP said in April. “We will dispatch engineers and other staff to the GE factory to monitor the process, and install new components as soon as possible to receive the operational licence.”
GE was not able to say when the faulty parts would be replaced.
A spokesman for Enec said: “It is important to note that the units in Barakah do not share the components that caused delays in the reference plant, so there is no impact to the construction of the plants. Therefore, the development of Shin Kori 3 is a Korean domestic matter and Kepco is working under the strict guidelines of the Korean nuclear regulator to obtain its operational licence.”
But several people involved in Barakah said getting approval of the safety procedures could be delayed even if the supply chain for the parts is different for the UAE project. The former Enec division head said “the most significant impact that could occur at this point would be if [the Korean regulator] or FANR found a problem with the Shin Kori 3 safety analysis”.
Already, the Korean regulator has failed to pass Shin Kori 3 on several occasions because of the faulty parts and it will be extra vigilant after the deaths of plant workers. Kepco, meanwhile, has an agreement with Enec to run Shin Kori-3 by September to demonstrate that it is fully operational, or it must pay penalties if it fails to do so.
Enec said that while it works with reputed entities across the world in a variety of specialised fields, such as legal, it has not been interviewing any law firms in relation to legal action.
The nuclear project’s most challenging phase also comes at a time when UAE government agencies, including FANR, are under budget pressure after last year’s sharp drop in oil prices.
FANR’s budget last year was Dh219.89 million, with staff levels of about 190, and senior industry people said it should be adding resources rather than contemplating cuts.
Christer Viktorsson, a Swedish/Finnish dual national who took over as FANR’s director general last month from founding director William Travers, an American, said: “FANR has all the competent staff and resources it needs at the present time to properly review the operating licence application for the first reactor at Barakah Nuclear Power Plant. That is for sure.”
But the former Enec executive commented: “I’m not surprised to hear that they officially say they have the resources to review the operating licence [but] my impression was that they were significantly understaffed for what they have been charged to do. The question I would have is what time frame are they talking about? Do they think they can review the licence with existing resources and meet Enec’s projected timelines? My opinion is that it’s unlikely.”
The other unique aspect for the UAE is that it draws its personnel – both at Enec and at FANR – from a wide spectrum of nationalities.
As Ms Ferrari at IAEA pointed out, the other country which is building a nuclear reactor for the first time – Belarus – has the advantage of being a Russian-speaking country whose programme is being built and operated by Russia’s Atomstroyexport.
“The UAE is a blend of US and western European philosophies” in terms of the plant safety and emergency response procedures, said the former Enec executive. “Ultimately you are going to operate the plant with systems and processes that were developed in Korea,” he said. “Is there an impact of taking a Korea-based design and dropping it into the UAE environment? No doubt.”
He added: “Having a multinational, multicultural and multilingual workforce certainly adds a layer of complexity to the UAE project. A great deal of effort has been placed on trying to address potential issues in this area, and it will have to continue to be an area of emphasis for the foreseeable future.”
The International Advisory Board (IAB), which regularly questions ENEC on its strategy, has commended “the UAE on a truly successful multinational programme. The Board also compliments the UAE on a successful worker safety programme as well”.
The UAE has so far shown that it has the ability to meet the demanding requirements needed to start a nuclear energy industry from scratch, said Jean-Francois Lafortune, who was the IAEA’s coordinator for the agency’s emergency preparedness review mission to the UAE this year.
In its March report, the IAEA mission noted a number of areas of excellence in the UAE’s system, including its unique co-location of on-site and off-site operation centres at Al Ruwais.
It also noted some areas that need improvement, for example that “all emergency response organisations need to ensure that sufficient qualified personnel are available for a prolonged response to protect the public”, and it called for improving ways of informing the public about problems.
The operational language of the plant is English while the official language in the UAE is Arabic. This has to be addressed when dealing with external agencies that have to be coordinated with, including the fire service, hospitals and police.
Mr Lafortune said: “You can always improve, so we dig until we find areas where you can improve.” But he concluded that the UAE’s efforts on working towards an emergency response system have been top-notch.
“It is the first really seriously embarking [nuclear energy] country that we have looked at in terms of evaluating their capabilities, and the infrastructure that they are developing is going to be state of the art, right up there with the best in the world,” he said.
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