UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant: wrong reactor, at wrong time, at wrong place

JP Casey | Power Technology

The UAE has announced that the first reactor of its under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant is scheduled to come online within “a few months”. The country’s first nuclear plant could address a key energy need in the region, but questions remain as to its usefulness and safety in a geopolitically tense environment.

The UAE is making a serious push to expand its nuclear capabilities. The Gulf state is aiming to source half of its power from clean sources by 2050, and includes a target of 6% from nuclear in this figure. While the country is also targeting a number of operational and efficiency improvements, aiming to improve energy consumption efficiency by 40% and reduce the carbon cost of domestically generated electricity by 70%, the Barakah plant is the lynchpin holding the project together.

Located 53km from the city of Ruwais in Abu Dhabi’s Gharbiya region, construction on the $20bn project began in 2012, and is finally nearing completion. With four reactors, developed by the state-owned Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and the South Korea-based Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), the plant is expected to have an operating capacity of 5.6GW, which will account for one quarter of the country’s energy needs.

But behind these grand claims, the project has been dogged by controversy. From macro problems, such as the inherent dangers of building a nuclear reactor in a geopolitically tense region, to specific weaknesses with Barakah, such as the cracking of the cement used to build the facility itself, the project has no shortage of critics. With the UAE eager to continue with the project, its completion appears a matter of when, not if, opening up a series of lessons to learn ahead of new nuclear construction.

Addressing energy needs

“Barakah forms part of the UAE’s strategy to both meet the growing energy needs of the region and to increase the share of clean energy in its energy mix,” said Dr Jonathan Cobb, senior communications manager at the World Nuclear Association. “The Barakah plant alone is expected to avoid the emissions of 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 3.2 million petrol cars off the road.”

The plant is expected to produce 5.6GW of power once fully operational, with four reactors powered with APR-1400 technology, developed in South Korea, driving this production. This figure would make the plant the sixth-largest nuclear facility in the world by net production capacity, and its backers hope the project will help to kick-start an energy revolution in the Middle East.

However, questions remain about the ultimate suitability of the plant, considering the risks inherent in nuclear and the potential for alternative sources of clean energy in the region. Dr Paul Dorfman, an honorary research associate at UCL and founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, an independent group of academics that aim to assess the risks and merits of nuclear projects, is sceptical about the suitability of Barakah for the UAE.

“So, given the fact – and it is a fact – that nuclear investment generates significant financial losses, one wonders if there are other reasons for Barakah,” he said. “Especially because nuclear energy seems to make limited economic sense for the Gulf States. As desert kingdoms, they have some of the best solar resources in the world, with solar having much, much lower investment and generation costs than nuclear.”

These solar resources are particularly significant considering the relative importance of renewable technology and nuclear power to the UAE’s 2050 climate goals. The nation aims to develop renewables as a primary source of power, and nuclear as a backup, a policy that could positively impact the solar industry, but hamstring the nuclear sector.

“Saudi recently tripled its renewable energy targets, and has successfully tended for large scale projects in wind and solar, with a Saudi-based consortium launching a world record low price of $17 per megawatt hour for a 900 megawatt solar park in Dubai itself,” said Dorfman. “So, worldwide and in the Gulf, the fate of new nuclear is linked to and determined by renewable energy technology rollout.”

Safety credentials and regulatory oversight

As is the case with the development of any new technology, safety is a primary concern, and especially so regarding nuclear power, with infamous disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima continuing to cast long shadows over the sector. Cobb is confident that the Barakah facility has passed all of the necessary requirements, pointing to the strong safety credentials of KEPCO, which both designed thefour APR-1400 reactors and has been using them in 2016, as evidence of the project’s strong commitment to safety.

“In addition to scrutiny from FANR (the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation) unit one has recently passed the pre-start up review, a globally recognised nuclear industry assessment conducted in line with international industry standards set by the World Association of Nuclear Operators,” he noted.

However, Dorfman is again concerned about these safety assurances, not only because of alleged mishaps at Barakah, but the generally lax approach to safety regulation across the nuclear sector.

“Nuclear reactor design has evolved, but key additional safety features have not been included at Barakah, with the chief executive of Areva, the French nuclear cooperation, comparing the Barakah reactor design to, quote, ‘a car without airbags and seatbelts,’” he said. “So the Barakah reactor design may prove inadequate defence against significant radiation release under what’s known as ‘fault conditions’; in other words, an accidental or deliberate airplane crash or military attack.

“And what’s particularly worrying is the lack of a core catcher, which in the event of a failure of the emergency reactor core systems, would retain the nuclear fuel once it breached the reactor pressure vessel. On top of that, concrete cracking in all four reactor containment buildings hasn’t helped, nor has installation of faulty pilot-operated safety relief valves.”

He also noted that KEPCO’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by a series of scandals originating in 2013, where top safety officials were sentenced for falsifying safety documents for parts used in its nuclear reactors. 100 people were ultimately charged, as six of the country’s 23 operating nuclear reactors were shut down between late 2012 and late 2013, discrediting the reputation in which the UAE has placed such high stock to justify its safety moves at Barakah.

Finances may have played a key role in the involvement of KEPCO. The UAE awarded KEPCO a contract worth $20bn for the construction of the plant, a much lower bid than was made by other firms. In 2008, Synapse Energy predicted that new nuclear construction could cost up to $9bn for each 1.1GW plant; while this figure is not a specific measurement for all nuclear facilities, this prediction would place the expected cost of Barakah at around $45bn, more than double what KEPCO invested into the facility.

“It’s a bit of a ‘cheap and cheerful’ reactor,” Dorfman added.

Political damage

The impact of these uncertain safety credentials could significantly discredit many of the world’s nuclear regulatory bodies, which have signed off on the Barakah plant despite these risks. Dorfman said that the plight of the facility highlights the “discretionary rather than mandatory” nature of nuclear regulation, where national governments are given exclusive responsibility to enforce operational and safety standards without the support of a strong international body.

“The International Atomic Energy Association can attempt to control what’s happening, but it can’t necessarily say to anybody: ‘you will do this’ or ‘you will do that’, as we’ve found out to a cost in Iran, Pakistan, or Israel,” he said.

The lack of a central global executive to take responsibility for safety, and the resulting burden on national governments, means nuclear power and nuclear safety are tied to national policy and local geopolitics in a way that is unlike any other energy source. Dorfman pointed to the example of the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, which saw rebel groups overthrow the Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was allied with the Gulf states, in 2015. Two years later, the rebels claimed to have fired rockets at Barakah as a warning to the UAE against future involvement in Yemeni affairs, with the prospect of military strikes launched at a nuclear facility an obvious political, and potentially humanitarian, emergency.

“Following a very recent military strike against Saudi oil refineries, and all that implies, nuclear safety in the region increasingly revolves around the broader issue of security,” Dorfman continued, highlighting the pressure on the UAE government to ensure the security of the Barakah plant.

“Tense Gulf strategic geopolitics makes new civil nuclear construction more controversial there than elsewhere,” said Dorfman, summarising many of the threats to local people and regional stability posed by the plant, which remain unresolved. “Once Barakah begins full-scale generation there will be a major maritime risk, whether directly intended or unintentional.

“It’s the wrong reactor in the wrong place at the wrong time.”



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