Abu Dhabi’s energy sector is poised for transformation in 2020 with the anticipated commissioning of the first nuclear energy plant in the Arab world. The Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant consists of four 1400-MW nuclear reactors and is located in the Al Dhafra Region of the emirate. Upon completion, the four units of the Barakah plant will generate up to 25% of the UAE’s electricity by safely producing 5600 MW of zero-emission electricity at a constant rate. The Ministry of Energy and Industry has set ambitious targets for the UAE in its Energy Strategy 2050. The goals of the strategy are for the UAE to produce 50% of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2050, reducing carbon emissions by 70%. Through a diversified energy mix, Abu Dhabi will be able to direct a larger proportion of its hydrocarbons towards its industrial sector and export markets.
The development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is a primary objective of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which identifies the diversification of energy sources as a major component of the emirate’s economic development strategy. Motivated by a need for clean, reliable and safe energy, the UAE released a policy white paper in April 2008 entitled “Policy of the UAE on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy” and launched the UAE Peaceful Nuclear Energy Programme. The white paper was developed in consultation with foreign governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a global organisation that seeks to promote the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The policy document confirmed the UAE’s commitment to complete operational transparency; the highest standards of non-proliferation, safety and security; and working directly with the IAEA to conform to its standards in evaluating and potentially establishing a peaceful nuclear strategy. In 2009 these policies were enshrined in the UAE’s Federal Law by Decree No. 6 of 2009 Concerning the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, and the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) was created as an independent authority with responsibility for the regulation and licensing of all nuclear-related activities in the UAE, and public safety as its primary objective. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), a company fully owned by the Abu Dhabi government, was also formed in 2009 to implement the UAE Peaceful Nuclear Energy Programme. One of its main functions was to select and appoint a primary contractor for the construction of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant.
The contract to design, build and commence operations of the Barakah was awarded in 2009 to the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) after a year-long search and evaluation process conducted by a team of 75 international nuclear power experts. The $20bn contract covered the construction of four reactors at the plant, as well as recruitment, training and education programmes Site preparation work began in 2010 following FANR approval, and the first concrete was poured for Unit 1 in 2012. Following this, FANR issued construction licences for Unit 2 of the facility, and subsequently for Unit 3 and Unit 4. In October 2016 a joint venture between ENEC and KEPCO was established. As part of the agreement, two subsidiaries were created, namely Barakah One Company and Nawah Energy Company. The former was established to represent the financial and commercial interests of the Barakah project, while the latter was established to operate and maintain the four units of the Barakah plant. KEPCO holds an 18% stake in the joint venture, while ENEC owns the remaining 82%.
In March 2018 ENEC announced that the construction of Unit 1 had been completed. In late 2019 the World Association of Nuclear Operators completed a review for Unit 1 of the facility, which confirmed its operational readiness. In February 2020 Nawah Energy Company received the operating licence for Unit 1 from FANR, and commenced and safely completed the loading of the first nuclear fuel assemblies. In March 2020 Gulf News reported that Christer Viktorsson, director-general of FANR, stated that initial power production was set to begin in May or June 2020, and that the first reactor was likely to reach full capacity within eight to 12 months. In April 2020 ENEC revealed that the overall construction and installation of the plant was more than 94% complete.
The Barakah plant comprises of four APR-1400 advanced pressurised water nuclear reactors. The facility’s equipment was approved by South Korea’s regulator, the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, and received design approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The reactors were built in South Korea and shipped to Abu Dhabi for installation. The APR-1400 was designed according to the most up-todate international safety standards, according to the IAEA, and the Generation III+ reactors aim to have an additional margin of security to protect public health. The majority of the components were manufactured in South Korea and shipped to Abu Dhabi for installation.
As a result, they have larger pumps, heat exchangers and pipes to increase the water flow rate in cooling systems and to reflect the higher seawater temperatures found in the Gulf; seawater intake and cooling systems that comply with Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi standards on temperature; more ventilation and air conditioning to deal with higher outside temperatures and airborne sand and dust particles; and a refined intake screen to protect fish. The operational lifespan of the reactors is approximately 60 years.
The fuel used at the Barakah plant is uranium. Following an international procurement process, ENEC entered into contracts with six suppliers for the purchase of natural uranium concentrate, enriched uranium products, and conversion and enrichment services. KEPCO Nuclear Fuel manufactures the fuel assemblies in South Korea and transports them to the UAE for use in the plant. Approximately 20m shipments of radioactive material take place around the world each year, and an estimated 80,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel has been safely transported by land and sea since 1971. Secure containers are used, and equipment is fully tested and certified by FANR in accordance with IAEA guidelines. Additionally, the UAE has been a signatory of the IAEA’s Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material since 2003. The UAE plans to store used nuclear fuel at Barakah while the fuel assemblies cool down, a process that takes roughly five to six years. The spent material will then be stored in a pool at an interim facility on-site. The used fuel at Barakah is expected to spend 20-30 years in the pool before it is transferred to dry casks and stored on-site. In September 2019 ENEC signed a memorandum of understanding with the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency as part of its plans to develop a long-term nuclear waste-management strategy. “We have put in place a proactive approach to planning for the future requirements of the UAE nuclear energy industry alongside our UAE stakeholders and in line with our international commitments,” Mohamed Al Hammadi, CEO of ENEC, said in the agreement’s announcement. In September 2019 ENEC also renewed its 2017 memorandum of understanding with Techsnabexport, part of Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation, a global supplier of uranium and nuclear fuel cycle solutions.
As of end-2019 a total of 72 reactor operators and senior reactor operators had been certified by FANR, among them 30 UAE nationals. As Unit 1 has a staffing requirement of 32 operators, ENEC has a surplus of trained talent for the opening phase of the first unit of the Barakah plant. To support the local workforce ENEC offers scholarships to talented Emirati students that meet the requirements to join the sector. More than 500 Emirati students have benefitted from scholarships as a part of the Energy Pioneers Programme launched by ENEC in 2009. FANR has also highlighted the importance of developing local talent. FANR employs 250 people, 67% of whom are Emirati. “In the long term we expect the nuclear power industry to be fully staffed by Emiratis, but it is difficult to say exactly when this will happen,” Viktorsson told OBG.