'Transparency' is a watchword for residents of nuclear site in Braka

Efforts to educate residents about the UAE's nuclear programme are set to intensify over the coming months, and so far officials say they have had receptive ears.

As Talal Abdullah looked on in April at his still half-painted home in Braka, a site that is now likely to house the UAE's first nuclear power plant, the chemistry teacher wondered whether people would want to stay in the vicinity. "I'm educated, but for older people there will be a bit of sensitivity. If you bring family close by and anyone gets sick they would say it's because of the plant," he said.

"We're educated and we know the safety measures, but older people will say: 'Nuclear? No thank you.'" His remarks underline one challenge facing the country's nuclear programme: getting regular people on board. Efforts to educate residents about the UAE's nuclear programme are set to intensify over the coming months, and so far officials say they have had receptive ears. "Our management is meeting with officials in the Western Region, as well as with the people who live there," said Fahad al Qahtani, the media relations manager at the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp (Enec). "We understand that this is a major potential development for the area, and that nuclear energy is a new concept for the UAE."

Enec plans public forums for officials and students to educate them about nuclear power. Education projects for Western Region schools are also planned. Enec hopes to stress the potential development and employment opportunities for Al Gharbia, provide continuous updates to residents on the construction process and quell any safety concerns the population might have. The Federal Authority of Nuclear Regulation has also announced that it would seek public feedback on a number of draft regulations governing the nuclear plants, including the location of nuclear facilities, emergency preparedness and the safe transport of radioactive materials.

Jonathan Wood, an energy analyst with Control Risks, a security consultancy with offices in the UAE, said the concept of nuclear energy is returning to the mainstream, with awareness about climate change and carbon sources changing perceptions of it as a source of power. "The second [factor] is probably generational, which is that the accidents and the concerns about nuclear technology generally are something that belonged primarily to a previous generation," he said.

Still, countries, especially in Europe and North America, generally have to grapple with two primary concerns of local populations - a perception of there being a "personal safety hazard" associated with being near a nuclear plant, and ideological opposition to nuclear technology. This means that countries need to have a high degree of transparency with the local population during construction, informing them, for instance, if there will be restricted access to certain areas or an influx of labour, he said.

With nuclear power, there is an added educational burden - informing people about what the energy will be used for and what the realistic risks are. "I think as with any large capital infrastructure project it's very important to have a good degree of engagement early on in the process to make sure that all of the people who will be directly or indirectly impacted feel they have been consulted," Mr Wood said.

"Operational transparency" has been at the forefront of the nuclear programme, Mr al Qahtani said. Pilot public forums that introduced students and public officials to the technicalities of nuclear power generation, its potential as a sustainable and clean energy source and its good safety record have earned an enthusiastic response from attendees, he said. Safety concerns that people might associate with incidents like the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl are also being addressed, with the point being made that the technology is far more advanced now.

Of particular importance is communicating with the inhabitants of Al Gharbia, which is likely to host the nuclear site. "We try to inform them of the economic benefits, how can they be part of the project, how they can benefit from the project," Mr al Qahtani said. "They will be our neighbours for the next hundred years," he added. @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae