Divided opinion: inside the UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant

JP Casey 17 April 2020 (Last Updated June 9th, 2020 13:09)

The UAE has announced that the first reactor of its Barakah nuclear power plant has just come online . 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.

Divided opinion: inside the UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant
“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,” said Cobb. Credit: Wikiemirati

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 Al Dhafra region, construction on the $20bn project began in 2012, and reached a key milestone as the first reactor has received an operating license from the country’s independent regulator, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR).

With four reactors, developed by the state-owned Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and the South Korea-based Korea 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 allegations that the the cement used to build the facility itself had cracked, 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.

“Nuclear energy seems to make limited economic sense for the Gulf States,” he said. “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 key element of its energy mix, especially as a backup power source.

“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 the four 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, 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 (WANO),” he noted.

These accomplishments are in line with broader UAE policy towards nuclear safety, that has seen the country make a number of commitments to ensuring operational safety. Last year, Hamad Al Kaabi, UAE ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), noted that the Barakah facility had been subject to 40 external reviews from bodies such as the IAEA and WANO to ensure its operations were safe.

“The UAE is committed to upholding its 2008 nuclear policy principles of transparency, safety and security, sustainability and international cooperation to ensure the UAE Peaceful Nuclear Energy Programme is developed in line with the highest standards,” Al Kaabi added.

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.”

The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), the owner and developer of the facility, objected to all of these criticisms, with a spokesperson noting that “new plants, such as the APR1400, are designed and built to counter threats, both external – such as terror attacks – and internet – such as a loss in power to the systems at the plant.

“Emergency preparedness plans are in place to protect both plant personnel and the local public. Public notification and emergency response systems have also been improved.

“ENEC works alongside the Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority, under the regulation of FANR, and with the guidance of the IAEA to develop and implement the highest international standards of safety and security across the programme.

ENEC also pointed out that the plant has received significant repair work in response to criticisms such as Dorfman’s concerning the facility’s concrete construction and safety valve operation.

“In 2018, ENEC’s rigorous quality assurance process identified concrete voids during the construction phase of unit three, and minor voids were found in unit two. No voids were found in units one and four,” said a spokesperson. “Through the quality assurance process, the voids were detected by KEPCO and verified by ENEC which, as the construction license holder, officially notified the UAE nuclear regulator, FANR, in line with our regulatory commitments for reporting construction issues.

“Furthermore, ENEC placed a public announcement on its website to ensure full transparency for the general public. A repair plan was developed by ENEC and KEPCO for both Units. FANR reviewed the repair plan and repair works and all repair works are now complete and approved on both units, in accordance with the highest international standards of safety, security and quality.

“There has been no installation of faulty safety relief valves,” they went on. “ENEC publicly announced a non-performance of the Pilot Operated Safety Relief Valves (POSRVs) in 2018, highlighting that this had also been publicly disclosed by the International Advisory Board as part of its reporting  In 2019, ENEC confirmed that the POSRVs had cleared all safety tests and the results shared with the UAE regulator FANR

Political damage

Dorfman 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.

ENEC, however, defended KEPCO and its role in the construction of Barakah.

“ENEC has worked closely with its joint venture partner KEPCO to ensure that the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, the first nuclear energy plant in the Arab World, meets national regulatory standards and international best practice,” said a spokesperson. “The plant utilizes the Korean APR1400 technology which has been developed and enhanced by KEPCO over the past 30 years, and achieves the highest industry standards in terms of safety, operational performance, environmental impact and operating life.

“The design is based on the CE System 80+ design, which was certified and licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the United States of America. The APR1400 reactor design was certified by the NRC on 1 May 2019.. As a Generation III+ reactor, the APR1400 safety systems are designed to prevent or mitigate severe accidents.

“The design incorporates passive safety systems which work to ensure safe reactor shutdown, removal of decay heat, and the prevention of radioactive releases. The Barakah plant design contains safety features that provide equivalent functionality to the core catcher design. KEPCO and ENEC submitted extensive documentation and analysis to the UAE’s independent regulator, FANR, who conducted their own assessments to verify the safety of the plant design in the highly unlikely event of a core meltdown and are satisfied that the design meets all modern safety design parameters.

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.

Yet ENEC disputed the claims of falsification, with a spokesperson noting that “this statement is misleading as there has been no falsification of documents with regards to the Barakah plant. The statement is linked to a 2011 story on claims made in South Korea.”

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 Agency 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.

For its part, ENEC has made a significant effort to make clear its peaceful objectives and ultimate commitments to safe operations. “The UAE Government has made its peaceful objectives unambiguous,” said an ENEC spokesperson, pointing to a 2008 document, ‘Policy of the United Arab Emirates on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy’, as one that clearly sets out the country’s commitment to safe practices, including “the highest standards of non-proliferation” and ensuring operational transparency.

This commitment has been buoyed by international support for the Barakah facility. “Recently, following an extensive operational readiness assessment performed by an international team of nuclear industry experts from the Atlanta Center of WANO concluded that unit one of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in Abu Dhabi is ready to start up,” said a spokesperson.

“The WANO Pre-start Up Review is a globally-recognised nuclear industry assessment which is conducted in line with the international industry standards set by WANO, of which ENEC and [Abu Dhabi-based energy company] Nawah are both members.”

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.