”We have become the showcase of how to develop a civil nuclear power plant from scratch,” says Mohamed Al Hammadi. The UAE, he believes, has become “a role model” for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
As the CEO of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, Mr Al Hammadi is poised to lead the country and its economy into a new world of energy supply.
He was speaking yesterday as the massive Barakah power plant enters the final and perhaps most crucial stage of its construction.
The first of four nuclear reactors is now 96 per cent completed. All major testing is finished and the enriched uranium that will fuel the reactor is stored and ready to be loaded.
That last four per cent, though, is not something that will be rushed. “The key message here is that we want this power plant to meet all the high standards of nuclear safety and quality, “ Mr Al Hammadi emphasises.
“And then this power plant will be operational. We have to make sure all the equipment is one hundred per cent ready to operate. You dot every ‘i’ ten times and cross every ’t' ten times.
He expects the first electricity to enter the UAE power grid in 2018. When exactly? “Once we meet all the requirements then we will operate the power plant.”
A host of authorities have to be satisfied, including environmental agencies and FANAR, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, which independently assesses the plant’s readiness.
Construction of the plant began in 2012 and will be not be completed until 2020. It is currently the world's largest nuclear construction site. Barakah operates on timescale almost unheard of for construction projects - until 2085, when the four reactors will finally reach the end of their operational life.
For the next 60 years, Mr Al Hammadi predicts, the UAE will benefit “from a beautiful basket of energy” that will include gas, oil and renewables like solar power.
But nuclear power will be the backbone. The four reactors can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week for up to 18 months, producing around 25 per cent of the country’s electricity needs. Barakah will have enough uranium fuel on site to keep it going for three years without additional supplies.
In doing so, it creates a safety net of energy security, as the economy continues to grow at double digit rates. “This basket of energies will make this nation successful for decades to come,” Mr Hammadi says.. “Nuclear power will play a major role in that equation. The good thing about nuclear from a security point of view is that it is a clean, safe, and reliable source of energy.”
All four reactors will not be fully on stream until around 2020, but progress continues on the remaining three reactors, with the announcement yesterday that unit two has completed a crucial evaluation designed to test the reactor’s cooling system.
International expertise has also been crucial with the reactor’s designed in Korea and the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) taking an 18 per cent stake in the Nawah Energy Company, the subsidiary that will operate the plant.
Also crucial has been the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes peaceful atomic energy. All the uranium fuel for the Barakah plant is imported and will be sent overseas for reprocessing once it is spent - even if this may not be for many generations.
The plant has been constructed in the Western Region, around 70 kilometres from Ruwais and ironically, very close to many of the country’s oil fields, the source of prosperity since the early 1960s.
The decision to embrace nuclear power marks another stage in the UAE’s transition from an oil-based economy and has also allowed a generation of young Emiratis to discover new science and technology based skills.
Around 60 per cent of the workers at Barakah are nationals, and the percentage of women, at 20 per cent, is the highest in any nuclear energy plant in the world.
“I am personally very proud of that,” says Mr Hammadi. Bringing nuclear power to the UAE, he says: “Is a great achievement we can all be proud off.”