A decade on from its inception, the nuclear power plant at Barakah began full commercial power generation on April 6, 2021, in a landmark moment for UAE. In this article from August 2020, we chart the country's journey to creating clean and plentiful nuclear energy.
Three hours and nearly 300 kilometres west of the centre of Abu Dhabi, the space between shimmering desert and dusty sky resolves into a series of massive concrete domes.
These are the reactor buildings of the Barakah nuclear power station and their effect is more than just on the landscape of Al Dhafra region. Their presence is a statement of wider intent, of the commitment by the UAE to new forms of energy and proof to the world that the country is ready to join the nuclear power club.
Barakah began producing power on Friday, following the activation of Unit 1, but its story goes back more than a decade, to when the UAE first announced that it was examining the nuclear option for its energy needs.
This was no small commitment. The decisions proposed in 2008 would affect lives for generations to come.
For some, the decision by the UAE to embrace nuclear power seemed strange. Here was a country sitting on vast reserves of oil, surely unconcerned and immune from any energy concerns.
But the reason for it was elegantly expressed by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, in an address to the Government Summit three years ago.
“In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is: when it is shipped abroad, will we be sad?” he asked. “If we are investing today in the right sectors, I can tell you we will celebrate at that moment.”
Abu Dhabi is the city that oil built, but its continuing prosperity depends on an economy that is diversified into many fields.
Today, 98 per cent of UAE’s energy comes from gas-fired stations. It is in the interest of the country’s future energy security that all eyes are now on the power plant.
In December 2009, the newly-created Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation awarded a group of companies led by Korea Electric Power Corporation a $20 billion bid to build the first nuclear power plant in the UAE.
South Korea’s expertise was essential to the project’s success. Its APR-1400 reactor is arguably the most advanced in the world, with a design life of 60 years. The UAE ordered four for Barakah, with construction breaking ground in 2011.
To operate and run the plant, an ambitious training scheme for young Emiratis was proposed, taking the best and the brightest on a mission to ensure the UAE’s energy security. To date, around 70 per cent of the workforce is Emirati, and fully 40 per cent are women, the highest percentage of any nuclear power company in the world.
“We are proud of our youth working in the biggest nuclear project of its kind internationally,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. “They are the engine for the future’s accomplishments.”
Mohamed Al Hammadi, chief executive of Enec, said the plant will provide the backbone of the UAE’s energy supplies, complementing sources such as natural gas and the developing solar sector, but uniquely able to generate power night and day for up to 18 months without a break.
It will also do so in an environmentally friendly way. Nuclear power releases nothing but warm water; Barakah, it is calculated, will save the atmosphere from 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, equal to removing 3.2 million cars from the roads each year – a significant gesture from a country that historically is regarded as having one of the world’s biggest carbon footprints.
The benefit to the environment does not stop there. One pellet of uranium, the element used in nuclear power, is equal to a tonne of coal or 471 litres of oil and produces enough electricity for a single Emirati family for four months.
The UAE’s Energy Plan for 2050 aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 70 per cent and increase clean energy use by 50 per cent. These targets, and the predicted savings of Dh700bn, will depend in great part on the success of Barakah.
“The good thing about nuclear power,” said Mr Al Hammadi, “is that from a security point of view it is a clean, safe, reliable source of energy.”
The power plant will produce enough electricity to cover 25 per cent of the country’s energy needs. The station consists of four units that will supply 5,600 megawatts of energy.
Producing this amount of energy requires the highest level of attention to safety, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (Wano) heavily involved in testing and reviews at each stage.
To date, more than 255 inspections have been carried out by the UAE’s the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulations to ensure the Barakah plant and its people and processes meet the highest standards of nuclear quality and safety. These national reviews have been supported by more than 40 assessments and peer reviews by the IAEA and Wano.
The site is geologically stable and free of earthquake risk. The seaside location also provides an inexhaustible supply of water for cooling.
The start-up of Unit 1 on Friday marked the first time that the reactor safely produced heat, which is used to create steam, turning a turbine to generate electricity.
A team at Nawah Energy Company, an operating and maintenance subsidiary of Enec, is focused on safely controlling the process and the power output of the reactor. After several weeks of testing, Unit 1 will be ready to connect to the UAE’s electricity grid and deliver the first megawatts of clean electricity to homes and businesses.
The UAE has agreed it will neither enrich uranium nor reprocess spent fuel.
The country’s pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy will soon supply the country with environmentally-friendly power, create thousands of jobs and support the country’s aim of economic diversification.
“Barakah is more than an energy plant,” said Mr Al Hammadi.
“It brings prosperity and value to the UAE with new industrial and human capacity, it significantly improves the carbon footprint and energy security of the nation, and accelerates the decarbonisation of the power sector to contribute to alleviating global climate change.”
Nuclear power is not just a commitment for our generation, but for our grandchildren and their grandchildren