UAE and UK join forces to seize nuclear power's moment

Closer collaboration planned after Cop28 amid expansion of atomic energy goals

A dome is lifted into place at Britain's Hinkley Point C site, a nuclear plant under construction with the help of the world's largest crane Big Carl. AFP
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Back in the 1980s, when green parties were first making waves in politics, many of them had a founding cause in common: they hated nuclear power.

Fast forward to 2023, and the 194-nation Dubai climate deal included nuclear on a list of low-carbon options that ought to be “accelerated” to help cut emissions.

Unthinkable once – but nuclear is now officially welcomed as a friend, not an enemy, in the battle to save the planet.

Two of the countries looking to build on this atomic revival are the UAE, operating its first reactor since 2021, and Britain, where the world’s first commercial nuclear plant opened in 1956.

The National has been told that Britain wants to work more closely with the UAE after both countries backed a pledge at Cop28 to treble the world’s nuclear power capacity by 2050.

As well as investment, there is interest in sharing expertise, working together on technology such as miniature reactors, and learning from the UAE’s experience as one of the world’s newest nuclear-powered countries.

The UK’s nuclear minister Andrew Bowie held talks with UAE counterparts on the sidelines of Cop28, where he signed an agreement with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) on Britain’s behalf.

“We’re doing a lot with the UAE,” Mr Bowie told The National.

“There’s a lot of collaboration on future nuclear fuels, on exchange of ideas, of personnel, of technologies, and we’re seeking to further deepen that co-operation.”

The development of the UAE’s Barakah plant has been “amazing to see”, said Mr Bowie, who said the two countries shared an “ambitious and forward-leaning” policy on nuclear.

“It makes sense to have the UAE as a partner on this because they too recognise the importance of nuclear in terms of delivering our ambitions on net zero, combating climate change and developing the economies of our two respective countries,” he said.

Big nuclear

Britain has a long atomic pedigree but last opened a new plant in 1995 and is no longer in the top 10 countries with the most nuclear capacity, according to the World Nuclear Association.

With ministers pledging a revival, driven by various factors including net-zero pledges and the end of the Russian gas era in Europe, Britain is seeking investment for a £20 billion ($25.46 billion) nuclear plant called Sizewell C.

A second site, Hinkley Point C, is already under construction (with the help of the world's largest crane known as Big Carl), although the project was delayed by Covid-19. Its projected opening has been pushed back to 2027.

The Dubai deal could give investors the assurance they need that nuclear has a bright future – and that funding a plant such as Sizewell C would not land them in trouble with green-minded regulators.

The single word “nuclear” in the 21-page Dubai climate deal gives the sector its “rightful place alongside other zero-emissions, low-carbon technologies,” said Tom Greatrex, the head of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association.

He said there was more to gain from UK-UAE collaboration than just potential investment, not least thanks to Barakah’s example as one of the world’s newest nuclear projects.

Barakah’s fourth and final unit was completed this month and the project shows the advantages of a “focused, disciplined approach” in which several pieces of the same technology are built in rapid succession, Mr Greatrex said.

“It puts the UAE in a very strong position as not just, as you might have thought a few years ago, a receiver of nuclear technology, but also actually as a practitioner in civil nuclear,” he said.

“UAE, UK, and many other nations are part of a pledge to treble nuclear capacity by 2050. That means a lot more capacity, a lot more supply chain activity and innovation, and a lot more expertise-sharing to get to that point.”

Small nuclear

Also in the UK and UAE’s sights is a new generation of windmill-sized mini-nuclear plants (known as small modular reactors or SMRs), which could power stand-alone sites such as a factory.

The new UK-UAE memorandum mentions SMRs as an area for potential co-operation, with Britain looking to export models being developed by Rolls-Royce.

Rolls-Royce and five other UK companies have been selected to design mini-reactors. The UAE, US and others this year announced $275 million of funding for a similar project in Romania.

The next stage is for initial interest to “mature towards orders”, which is what companies need to justify building the factories where SMRs are produced, said Mr Greatrex.

“With the need there is for dispatchable, clean power, SMR project development across different borders is going to be a big part of that,” he said.

Rolls-Royce is hoping to bring them to market by 2030 and is floating the idea that they could be used to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – a market in which the UAE’s location could make it a front-runner.

“That could be done here in the UAE, supplying SAF fuel for UAE airlines, achieving the emissions reduction benefit and keeping the economics for the airlines and the travelling public still viable,” Rolls-Royce’s Middle East president John Kelly told The National before Cop28 began.

Nuclear’s trump cards are that it can be on all the time (unlike solar and wind) and barely produces CO2 (unlike coal or gas), but some object to it on the grounds of safety and radioactive waste.

Mr Bowie, however, is confident that the public would embrace small nuclear reactors.

“We’re in a moment right now where, in the UK at least, nuclear is seen as a net positive and a contributor towards our net-zero goals, combating climate change and becoming more energy secure and independent,” he said.

“In every nation and region, in every demographic, every age group within the UK, nuclear is seen as net positive and SMR is part of that, and I do believe that’s the case across most countries across the world as well.”

Nuclear’s ultimate prize – fusion – has been tantalisingly out of reach for decades, but Britain is aiming to build a prototype plant by 2040. Mr Bowie was talking about that in Dubai as well.

Britain’s fusion lab is making “scientific breakthroughs on a near-daily basis,” he said, which will “create the opportunity to harness the power of the sun and bring energy into people’s homes”.

The UK and UAE are committed to net zero by 2050. That is too soon to rely on fusion. But the dream that nuclear will solve the puzzle for decades thereafter lives on.

Updated: December 28, 2023, 9:09 AM