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Energising the future of the UAE

The message of building a model nuclear energy programme is inspiring a new generation of Emirati engineers, technicians and power specialists

Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News
Gulf News

On July 18, 2012, The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) poured the first nuclear safety concrete for Barakah Unit 1, the UAE’s first commercial nuclear reactor. It was a momentous occasion for ENEC, the project’s prime contractor, the Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) and the nation. Years of planning and tireless work led to this important step towards bringing the UAE’s first nuclear power plant online in 2017.

When Barakah Unit 1 is connected to the grid, it will mark a culmination of efforts to radically reshape the UAE’s energy portfolio and build new, high-tech industries that will support sustainable economic growth as the UAE moves forward from its birth and ascendency as an oil-rich state.

The transformation of the UAE’s economy has been underway for some time. While the development of the UAE’s oil and gas fields gave birth to the modern nation, today oil and gas exports only account for one-fourth of the UAE’s gross domestic product, a margin that is expected to continue to decline. The UAE has worked diligently to avoid the phenomenon known by political scientists as the “resource curse”. This refers to the strife that has befallen nations blessed with abundance in valuable natural resource such as oil or coal.

The UAE is trying to avoid the resource trap by following a path similar to that of other responsible nations that have wisely managed the wealth generated by oil to invest its wealth in the modernisation and diversification of its economy and the growth of its citizens.

While dependence on the oil industry to fuel the nation’s economy is waning, energy demand in the UAE is growing at a rate of 9 per cent a year — some three times the global average. In 2007, power demand in the UAE peaked around 13,000 megawatts and is expected to continuously grow for many years. This surge in energy demand, along with tightening supplies of natural gas — the nation’s main fuel for electricity generation — provided the UAE’s leaders with a challenge, but also an opportunity. The UAE would rebuild its energy portfolio with the aim of continuing the diversification of the nation’s economy and the establishment of industries that can create long-term careers for Emiratis.

The path towards nuclear energy development

Beginning in 2007, the UAE government began a thorough review of the nation’s energy options. Increased use of natural gas, oil, diesel, import of coal and the rapid deployment of renewable sources of power were all considered. The review concluded that the development of a commercial nuclear energy programme could deliver safe, reliable and efficient base-load electricity at a significant scale by 2020 while providing emissions-free power.

The study concluded that other energy sources did not meet environmental standards or simply could not be deployed at a scale large enough to meet a significant share of electricity demand.

The government’s decision was not just to develop clean energy, but rather a clean, emissions-free, high-tech energy industry. A commercial and peaceful nuclear energy programme would not just generate power but produce empowered Emiratis educated in new science and engineering programmes set up as a talent pipeline into the nation’s burgeoning and self-sufficient energy sector.

Developing a model programme

The decision to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy programme was made with the respect it deserved. The UAE government asked a deliberate question: How does a nation establish a peaceful nuclear energy programme in the most responsible fashion? From that question emerged two over-arching themes:

• International cooperation with nuclear energy experts would ensure the UAE would be using industry best-practices.

• Complete operational transparency to the public and to interested international organisations would build confidence in the UAE programme at home and abroad.

These themes have become ENEC’s basic principles and the drivers for the development of the nation’s programme. With these themes in place, the government took the immediate step to strengthen its presence at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and deepen its relationships with nations responsibly using nuclear energy. It entered into numerous international nuclear safety commitments, nuclear energy liability commitments and non-proliferation commitments. It also turned to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the World Association of Nuclear Operators to help spread information about the development of the programme.

In 2009, the UAE issued its nuclear energy law which committed the nation to the most exacting standards of safety, transparency and security. Shortly thereafter, the government established the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR). FANR is staffed by nuclear energy regulatory veterans and is a completely independent and transparent regulatory body. FANR’s leadership includes experts who worked with distinction at the IAEA and regulatory bodies in the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

In addition, to help ensure a fusion of the best practices in the global nuclear industry, the government established the International Advisory Board (IAB), mandated to provide an independent assessment of the programme. The IAB consists of nine members and is chaired by Dr Hans Blix, who had served as the director general of IAEA for four terms, from 1981 till 1997.

The IAB analyses key areas of the UAE’s peaceful nuclear energy programme and the reports are available to the public, ensuring that both domestic and international stakeholders are able to monitor the programme’s performance against the highest international standards.

The UAE government is determined to build a model programme and pursue a path towards responsible development of nuclear energy that will serve as the gold standard for other nations interested in developing new, peaceful nuclear energy programmes of their own.

Turning a plan into action

The UAE’s nuclear energy programme began in earnest in December 2009 with the target of producing nearly a quarter of the nation’s electricity needs by 2020. With strong government support, ENEC moved quickly to aggregate international expertise in the development of safe, clean, reliable nuclear power — expertise that could cultivate the first generation of Emirati nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians. International experts would also play a central role in the selection of the nation’s nuclear energy vendor.

ENEC worked with a group of 75 international experts in evaluating prime contractor bids and selected KEPCO to design, build and operate the UAE’s first four reactors. KEPCO brought to the competition the APR1400 — its Generation III reactor, boasting state-of-the-art safety features — a 30-year history of generating commercial nuclear energy at the highest international standards and an impressive proposal to grow an indigenous Emirati workforce to build, operate and maintain the UAE’s nuclear-energy industry.

Maintaining support through crisis

In July 2011, only months after the Fukushima accident, ENEC conducted an independent opinion poll to measure public opinion on nuclear energy and the UAE peaceful nuclear energy programme. The results of the poll provided affirmation for the nation’s approach to the development of commercial nuclear energy.

The poll, a professional survey conducted by an independent global market research specialist, showed that 85 per cent of respondents believed that nuclear energy was a strategically important source of electricity for the continued growth of the UAE. More than 97 per cent of those polled said they were aware of the events in Japan at the Fukushima plant and that it was a serious accident. However, nearly half of the respondents said their attitude towards the prospect of nuclear power in the UAE had grown more positive in the past six months.

These results were the fruit of concerted outreach efforts by ENEC to raise understanding of nuclear energy and the programme, including education and employment opportunities available through the corporations and government. Since ENEC had been engaged in a comprehensive communications campaign from the launch of the programme, messaging and education vehicles were already in place to effectively engage with the public about the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

ENEC bolstered its existing messages on safety with clear, fact-based and easy-to-understand information about the events at Fukushima and described the steps taken to ensure that relevant lessons learned were being incorporated into the Emirati programme. ENEC engaged with the public online and through interactive public forums in locations across the country.

Workforce recruitment has also played a critical role in building and sustaining support for the programme. Just as the US determination to go to the Moon spurred a generation of young people to become aerospace engineers and scientists, the UAE programme’s message of building a model nuclear energy programme to reshape the nation’s economy is inspiring a new generation of Emirati engineers, technicians and power specialists. This forward-looking message, offering personal betterment for the benefit of the nation, has helped sway public attitudes towards the nuclear energy programme from qualified support to a sense of public investment in a successful outcome.

Building the nation’s nuclear energy workforce

ENEC’s outreach efforts, through public forums and a variety of media platforms, are producing a pipeline of talented candidates for the nation’s nuclear energy workforce. ENEC and KEPCO, as well as other international partners, have worked to develop a series of educational programmes for Emiratis based on international best-practices. These programmes have created new nuclear-specific educational schools and faculties in the UAE, with the first Masters in Nuclear Energy programme being offered in Khalifa University and a fully-dedicated nuclear technicians programme in the Abu Dhabi Polytechnic School.

The comprehensive scholarship programme, called Energy Pioneers, is a unique opportunity for new generation of talented Emirati students to enter the new energy sector. It also offers opportunities at leading nuclear energy engineering programmes (including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology and Michigan University), as well as the participation in Korean technical training programmes. In addition, ENEC is also working at a more basic level to prepare its future nuclear energy workforce. After carefully studying education initiatives in other nations, ENEC decided to launch programmes designed to reshape STEM education at the elementary and high school levels in the UAE. These programmes are based on international best-practices and aim to transform the way students are taught science and mathematics.

ENEC’s approach to the establishment of the nation’s nuclear energy programme and the development of its workforce is a holistic one that places equal emphasis on the development of world-class facilities as it does on a homegrown, world-class nuclear energy workforce.

Looking towards the future

The UAE’s nuclear energy programme is a key piece in the nation’s quest to move to a high-technology, knowledge-based economy. The UAE is a young nation born of immense and rapid change. Responsible development of commercial nuclear energy is the next step in the nation’s evolution.

Already, ENEC is building a leading-edge nuclear energy programme and workforce established with the guidance and assistance of the international nuclear energy community. Young Emiratis are embracing the opportunity to lead their nation into a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.

The pouring of the first safety concrete at Barakah Unit 1 was a testament to just how far the nation’s programme has already come. We are proud of our achievements, but we remain focused on the exigent programme that lies ahead: The continued progress of units 1 to 4 and the creation of an advanced, peaceful nuclear energy sector that will engage thousands of Emiratis to pioneer a new energy field filled with opportunities.

This is our commitment to the leadership of the nation and this is the centrepiece of our mission statement: To deliver safe, clean, reliable and efficient nuclear energy by 2017.

Mohamed Al Hammadi is Chief Executive Officer Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation