New law sets UAE's nuclear age in motion

The federal Government has issued a law that will form the legal cornerstone of the country's civilian nuclear programme.

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The federal Government yesterday issued a law that will form the legal cornerstone of the country's civilian nuclear programme. Significantly, the law affirms the UAE's place as the first nation to ban uranium enrichment, the process by which the metal can be made not only into nuclear fuel but also into an atom bomb.

Instead, officials said the UAE will import its nuclear fuel. The law, approved by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, also puts strict controls on the handling of nuclear material and sanctions the creation of a nuclear safety regulator with what is unprecedented independence for the UAE from industry influence. "The Government of the UAE has made a commitment in its nuclear energy law to forgo domestic enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear materials," said Hamad al Kaabi, the UAE's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"The UAE believes that it can achieve the necessary degree of fuel security through reliance upon the mature and diverse international fuel services market without resort to domestic enrichment or reprocessing." The law is the final legal hurdle before the government-owned Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) awards an estimated US$41 billion (Dh150.4bn) contract this month for the construction of a number of nuclear reactors expected to generate up to a third of the country's electricity.

In part to convince the international community that the UAE's programme is solely for peaceful applications, the law codifies a pledge by the Government to give up its right under international law to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment has been at the root of tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear programme. Iran says its nuclear programme is intended for civilian purposes, while Washington and European leaders are concerned it is developing a weapons programme. Ahmed al Mazroui, the new chairman of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, which has been under formation for the past year, said the Government was committed to public safety and high environmental standards for nuclear technology, whether it was used for power generation, medicine or other industries. "We fully understand the unrivalled importance of safety with regard to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy," he said. In the interest of public safety, the new regulatory body would have unparalleled independence. Members of the board and their families would be prohibited from having ties to any part of the nuclear business - from construction to shipment of raw materials - to prevent a conflict of interest in setting safety standards, government officials said. "Under the law, members of the board of management enjoy significant legal protections designed to prevent any conflicts of interest with their role as regulators, as well as to preserve their independence in making regulatory or licensing decisions," the Government said in a statement. The members of the board have set terms, and will be protected from dismissal if, for example, they shut a reactor or ask for more information from contractors. The creation of a strong, independent regulator is a mainstay of nuclear programmes across the world, as a safeguard against shoddy construction or operation. Bill Travers, the director general of the federal authority, was formerly executive director for operations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US. The UAE regulator had been quietly growing since Dr Travers' arrival more than a year ago and now had 45 employees, he said. Once Enec chooses a reactor design, it will apply for a construction licence from the regulator, which will certify that it is fit for operation in the UAE. The regulator would probably demand changes to the design, depending on the characteristics of the site where ENEC chose to build the reactors, Dr Travers said. The regulator was in talks with government bodies in each of the four countries under consideration to supply the UAE's reactors, he said. "Each of the technologies that are being considered has already been licensed in the country of origin," Dr Travers said. The list of firms bidding for the nuclear contract is confidential, but industry sources have said it includes a French consortium and groups of companies from South Korea and Japan, which each count US firms as minority members. Once construction is complete, the regulator would award a second licence to allow the reactor to begin operations, Dr Travers said.