UAE announces successful start up of first nuclear plant in Arab world


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UAE announces successful start up of first nuclear plant in Arab world
Nation’s representative to IAEA hails ‘historic milestone’; expert has warned of possible nuclear arms race in Middle East, says lack of crucial safety features may cause disaster
By Agencies and TOI staff
1 August 2020

The United Arab Emirates on Saturday announced the startup of its Barakah nuclear power plant, a first for the Arab world. “UAE first nuclear reactor at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant has achieved first criticality and successfully started up,” tweeted Hamad Alkaabi, the country’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “This is a historic milestone for the nation with a vision set to deliver a new form of clean energy for the nation,” he tweeted in English.

The UAE has been constructing four nuclear reactors at its Barakah power plant, the Arab world’s first nuclear power station. The UAE premier and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, tweeted that work at Barakah had “succeeded in loading nuclear fuel packages, carrying out comprehensive tests and successfully completing the operation.” “Congratulations on realizing this historic achievement in the energy sector & marking this milestone in the roadmap for sustainable development,” Al-Maktoum said.

The UAE started loading fuel rods into the reactor at Barakah in February, after regulators gave the green light for the first of the plant’s four reactors, opening the way for commercial operations. The plant, located on the Gulf coast west of the UAE’s capital, had been due to come online in late 2017 but faced a number of delays that officials attributed to safety and regulatory requirements. It was built by a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corporation in a deal worth over $20 billion. When fully operational, the four reactors have the capacity to generate 5,600 megawatts of electricity, around 25 percent of the nation’s needs. The remaining three reactors are almost ready for operation.

The UAE has substantial energy reserves, but nuclear and renewables are targeted to contribute around 27% of its electricity needs by 2021. The UAE says it wants 50% of its energy to be generated by clean sources by 2050. Amid a tense confrontation between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program, the UAE has said it will not be developing an uranium enrichment program or nuclear reprocessing technologies. The UAE has repeatedly said its nuclear ambitions are for “peaceful purposes” and moved to dispel any concerns over safety. It says it has welcomed more than 40 international reviews and inspection missions. But last year, a nuclear expert told the British Telegraph that the nuclear program of the UAE could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and its lack of crucial safety features could lead to a nuclear disaster.

Dr. Paul Dorfman of the Nuclear Consulting Group said the UAE may be hoping to use the program to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal. He also warned that Abu Dhabi’s nuclear plants could be a prime target for terrorists. “The motivation for building this may lie hidden in plain sight,” Dorfman said. “They are seriously considering nuclear proliferation.” The scientist said one threat to safety was regional turmoil that could see enemies launch attacks against the plants, when it was unclear the UAE had sufficient capabilities to properly defend against them. He also cited vulnerability to extreme temperatures and unforeseen effects of climate change.

The Barakah plant is located near the country’s coast, and rising sea levels and storms could potentially hit such locations and destabilize the facilities, he said. He also noted that water in the Persian Gulf is on average higher than elsewhere in the world, and could be less effective as reactor coolant. Dorfman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at University College London’s Energy Institute and has advised the British government.