“The wrong reactor at the wrong time”: inside the UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant

The first reactor of the UAE's 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, as JP Casey finds outs, questions remain as to its usefulness and safety in a geopolitically tense environment.

Image: 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 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.

/ Given the fact that nuclear investment generates significant financial losses, one wonders if there are other reasons for Barakah. /

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.

/ Given the fact that nuclear investment generates significant financial losses, one wonders if there are other reasons for Barakah. /

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.”

Image: Nuclear Energy Corporation

/ It's a bit of a ‘cheap and cheerful’ reactor /

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,” 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.”

/ It's a bit of a ‘cheap and cheerful’ reactor. /

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.

Image: Nuclear Energy Corporation

/ Once Barakah begins full-scale generation there will be a major maritime risk. /

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 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.

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.

/ Once Barakah begins full-scale generation there will be a major maritime risk. /

“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.”

Playing catch-up in the US

“In Europe, offshore wind has been there for a number of years, but I think in the United States we're a little bit behind that,” said Karustis.

Should it be successful, Halo’s approach could lead to a surge in US onshore wind, which has historically lagged behind other regions in terms of wind installation and production. Since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, the US has installed just 22.6GW of new onshore wind capacity, compared to 30.7GW in the EU, and 50.3GW in China, struggles that Karustis hopes to address.

Last December, the Chinese Government approved a number of new offshore wind projects, totalling 13GW of production and costing around $13.3bn, as the country continues to invest in utility-scale power. Karustis hopes projects like Halo’s distributed turbine can contribute to a more balanced wind sector in the US, with both large- and small-scale operations expanding renewable power.

“The large-scale wind turbines wouldn't be phased out, it's kind of an ‘all of the above’ thing,” he said. “The large wind farms play a very important role for us in reducing the carbon footprint globally, and hopefully the micro wind market is going to augment that by producing energy where energy is being used. It's a good two-pronged approach.”

This two-pronged approach also includes other renewable power sources, including solar and utility-scale wind; Halo is not trying to replace all clean energy with its turbines, but offer another option for people eager to engage in renewable power, who may have been historically sidelined due to the high costs of building utility-scale facilities or the unsuitable geographical characteristics of the places they live.

“When you look at that market we're very excited because just as megawatt-scale wind is a large market, I think distributed wind can be as big of a market or bigger over time,” said Karustis.

“When you have incentives and improvements in the technology, the costs go down, so you can be more competitive and compete, and that's certainly the case with megawatt-scale wind,” he continued. “Just 15/20 years ago, it wasn't competitive with natural gas [and] coal, but it is now. So those government policies have helped and they've driven the technology improvements, so it's all bundled together.”