The UAE will soon have its first nuclear energy plant. The world’s largest new nuclear construction site, with four units being constructed simultaneously, is progressing successfully at Barakah, located on the coast around 50 km west of Ruwais.
The plant’s construction will restructure the emirate’s energy sector, transforming the balance of inputs for electricity generation, while also establishing the UAE as one of the globe’s premier sites for nuclear energy development. At the same time, the project will have profound implications for other elements of the current energy equation, such as oil, gas and solar, both in the UAE and the Gulf region.
The story of nuclear energy in the UAE is a relatively short one. With abundant hydrocarbons resources, the country prior to 2008 had not expressed a defined plan for nuclear energy.
The UAE is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and supports the US-backed Proliferation Security Initiative. In the latter part of the decade, however, the GCC states, including the UAE, as a whole began to look more closely at peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
In 2007 the UAE sought advice from the International Atomic Energy Agency for a regional nuclear development programme. In 2008 the UAE released a white paper announcing its intention to begin an initial project, while in 2009 domestic legislation was passed that reiterated the commitments of the UAE policy of non-proliferation, complete operational transparency and the highest standards of nuclear safety, quality and security.
The rationale for this switch to nuclear can be found in the rapid economic and demographic development of the GCC states in recent decades, which has entailed a dramatic surge in domestic demand for electricity. This is true for both power generation and water production, as vital desalination processes are largely driven by combined-use power plants throughout the Gulf. In the UAE, at the time the 2008 white paper was issued, electricity demand was growing at some 9% per annum, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Since then, peak gross annual demand has more than doubled from 2218 MW in 2009 to 4591 MW in 2015, according to Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (ADWEC) figures.
The country has a range of gas-fired power stations to fuel such projects, with these plants having to import some of their feedstock from Qatar.
While in future, the development of domestic sour-gas fields and other innovations – such as a much larger role for solar power – may ease the import bill, the country’s leaders have decided that nuclear energy could provide the nation with a solution to its burgeoning future demand.
Role Of Fanr
Therefore, in 2009 Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayhan, president of the UAE and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, issued a decree establishing the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR). The authority was charged with overseeing and regulating the new sector, utilising the very best practices in the international nuclear industry, in line with the full range of global treaties, conventions and agreements. The next step came later in 2009, with the establishment of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC).
The corporation was then put in charge of the deployment, ownership and operation of all nuclear energy plants in the nation. ENEC then awarded the $20bn construction contract to a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), South Korea’s largest electricity utility and the world’s third-largest nuclear energy company. The consortium also includes Samsung, Hyundai, Doosan and Westinghouse, and was selected following a robust tender process, which included bids from a number of world-renowned nuclear companies.
The System 80+ nuclear reactor design, by US-based Westinghouse, is also behind the four APR-1400 reactors that are being installed at Barakah. These are advanced, pressurised water nuclear reactors that form KEPCO’s next generation range and were originally designated the Korean Next Generation Reactor. The design produces 1400 MW of power and has a lifespan of 60 years.
One APR-1400 is already currently in service in South Korea, while seven others are under construction worldwide, including the four in the UAE. Designers and the FANR gave oversight and advice on ENEC’s design modifications that were necessary to meet the geographical conditions. The harsh sun and high temperatures of a desert climate are the main challenges, along with the highly saline quality of the cooling water available, with the plant having to meet a wide array of safety standards.
Two new firms have been established that will be key to realising the UAE’s plans for nuclear energy. Via a joint venture with KEPCO, in late 2016 ENEC established the Nawah Energy Company and Barakah One Company. The goal moving forward is to ensure a governance structure that meets the highest standards of safety, quality and operational transparency. With this important change, ENEC has evolved away from a more centralised organisational model, which has led to a change in operations. Accordingly, the two new companies are focused on separate and specific areas of the nuclear segment, with Nawah leading nuclear plant operations and maintenance and Barakah One handling commercial interests.
Work Under Way
The initial drilling work began at Barakah in 2010, followed in 2012 with the pouring of safety-related concrete for Unit 1 of the four-unit plant. In 2014 the unit’s reactor vessel was set, and in September 2016 Unit 1 was progressing through the testing and commissioning phase, at Unit 2 the concrete dome was finished and the reactor vessel was installed at Unit 3. In May 2017 ENEC officially announced the completion of initial construction activities and the handover of all plant systems to Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power – a subsidiary of KEPCO – for testing and commissioning.
Outcomes & Aims
When operational, the combined output of the complex will be 5600 MW, a figure representing more than one-third of the total current generating capacity at ADWEC’s command. Barakah will thus represent a substantial increase in the emirate’s energy portfolio.
In October 2016 Barakah One Company, the subsidiary of ENEC and KEPCO, signed a power purchase agreement for the electricity generated at the Barakah plant with ADWEC. “The agreement establishes the contractual framework between the two entities for nuclear-generated safe, clean, efficient and reliable electricity produced at Barakah,” Mohamed Al Hammadi, CEO of ENEC, told OBG. The transmission grid from the Al Dhafrah Region to central Abu Dhabi has been increased to 420 KV.
This is intended to support the eventual full-capacity generation at Barakah, as well as other large industrial generators that are expanding as part of the overall development of the Al Dhafra Region. In addition, in the lead up to the inauguration of the first reactor, Nawah will receive an operating licence from FANR, which is currently reviewing Nawah’s application. The company is also submitting operating licence applications for Units 3 and 4 in 2017.
Ensuring Safety & Efficiency
Nuclear energy plants are also different from thermal plants in terms of their performance, flexibility, lifespan and overall cost. The UAE may be taking on a potentially major new role as an international nuclear energy centre, with Barakah establishing a range of ancillary services within its precincts, from emergency response to nuclear chemistry. The challenges that are posed by integrating supply chains and adhering to international safety protocols and regulation are addressed through the Quality Assurance Programme (QAP), as well as other internal processes based on international standards for nuclear power. The QAP is documented in ENEC’s Quality Assurance Manual and outlines quality requirements and responsibilities for all activities, including oversight of prime contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers. The QAP also applies to key equipment and activities that may not be directly related to essential functions, but that ultimately support and assure safe operations.
Al Hammadi told OBG, “The country’s decision to establish a peaceful nuclear energy programme is underpinned by a commitment to forego any domestic enrichment, as well as develop a comprehensive nuclear waste management system.”
Another issue is the long-term projection of power demand in the UAE. The government has been prioritising renewable energy development for more than a decade, with an estimated $15bn invested in alternative power programmes via the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, also known as Masdar.
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