UAE's nuclear regulator issues operating licence for Barakah plant

Four-reactor power station will eventually have capacity to meet 25 per cent of UAE energy needs

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The UAE's nuclear regulator has issued an operating licence for the first reactor at Barakah in the final step before firing up the atomic power plant.

The licence granted to Nawah Energy Company, the plant's operator, will be for 60 years, Hamad Al Kaabi, deputy chairman of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, said on Monday.

The project has been more than a decade in the making.

Barakah, near the oil town of Ruwais in the far west of Abu Dhabi, is the first nuclear power plant in the Gulf region and the first commercial station in the Arab world.

"Today marks a new chapter in our journey for the development of peaceful nuclear energy," Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said on Twitter.

"As we prepare for the next 50 years to safeguard our needs, our biggest strength is national talent."

When completed, the plant will have four reactors with total capacity of 5,600 megawatts and will be able provide up to 25 per cent of the UAE's energy needs.

The licensing assessment included reviewing the plant’s layout design and an analysis of the site’s location in terms of geography and demography.

It also included the reactor's design, cooling systems, security arrangements, emergency preparedness and radioactive waste management.

"Today’s announcement is another milestone for the UAE, culminating efforts of 12 years towards the development of the UAE Nuclear Energy Programme, to which FANR played a significant role to turn this vision into reality," Mr Al Kaabi said.

He is also the UAE's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Lessons from Fukushima

Mr Al Kaabi and Christer Viktorsson, director general of FANR, said the authority prepared a report on lessons learnt from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, in which a tsunami led to three nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive contamination.

Analyses were redone with a renewed focus on the risk of floods, tsunamis and earthquakes, Mr Viktorsson said. They found that local seismic activity was very low in the area.

Despite the low risk, engineers strengthened the cooling and electricity systems as additional safeguards.

Now the licence has been issued, Nawah will undertake a period of commissioning to prepare for commercial operations.

During that period, FANR will conduct round-the-clock inspections to ensure the fuel load and power accession processes are completed according to regulatory requirements, Mr Al Kaabi said.

As of this month, Unit 2 of the Barakah plant was 95 per cent ready to operate. Unit 3 was 92 per cent ready and Unit 4 83 per cent.

Mr Viktorsson said the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation had significant funds put aside for nuclear waste management.

Every 18 months the reactors will be refuelled and the used fuel will be cooled in special pools at Barakah for 20 years.

After the nuclear waste has been adequately cooled, it will be transferred to dry storage, where it will stay for 40 more years. Afterwards, other disposal methods will be considered.

Long-term jobs and expertise

Delivering the project has been a feat of engineering. As many as 18,000 people worked on the project at the height of construction.

Huge amounts of materials were taken to the remote site, about 280 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi.

Once all four reactors are operational, Barakah will have a daily workforce of about 2,500 people, Mr Al Kaabi said, and maintenance workers drafted in every two months.

That includes hundreds of technicians and engineers from the UAE, South Korea and the US.

Fifty-three Emiratis have recently been certified as senior reactor operators and many more will be needed in coming years.

There is growing interest among new Emirati graduates to enter the nuclear training programmes.

Mr Al Kaabi, who studied nuclear engineering in the US, said there were more young women than men interested.

“The pipeline for the skilled Emirati has advanced so much over the past 10 years and this is an area that will continue to develop," he said.

"You have 60 years in operation and additional years for closure, so you need to ensure this pipeline is always there, including new graduates.”

Clean energy for the future

At present, the UAE gets 98 per cent of its energy from gas-fired power stations. It imports nearly a third of its gas through the Dolphin pipeline.

Nuclear plays a significant part in targets to reduce gas-fired power generation to 38 per cent by 2050, along with renewable energy from solar and some clean coal.

The nuclear programme has huge upfront costs... but once you make that investment, the operation and fuel cost is very minimal

“The nuclear programme has huge upfront costs to provide a certain level of security," Mr Al Kaabi said.

"But once you make that investment in the construction of the plant, the operation and fuel cost is very minimal compared to the overall cost.

"That is why the fluctuation in the cost of uranium, for example, is not going to affect the overall cost of electricity.

"So now that we have these reactors in place, you can pretty much ensure how much a kilowatt of electricity coming from this reactor will cost you for the next 60 years.

"That has a lot of value for planning and for being able to have long-term projects.

"When the government decided, they said it’s among the most environmentally and economically competitive options for the UAE, with the additional value of security of the supply and clean energy.”

Barakah approaches completion - in pictures