Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant Image Credit: Supplied

As the UAE Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, and the UAE Special Representative for International Nuclear Cooperation, I am proud to have been given the opportunity to engage with responsible nations around the world for the promotion of peaceful nuclear energy.

In only a decade, the UAE has evolved from a new entrant in civil nuclear programmes, to a reputed nuclear developer that has established a culture of operational transparency and high nuclear safety and quality standards. This approach has meant that our vision of delivering peaceful nuclear energy has been reached more efficiently and effectively than any other nuclear new-build programme.

Thanks to our visionary leadership, along with a team of remarkable experts working in close collaboration with international entities, we have worked over the span of a decade to steadily progress to become the 33rd nation to enable nuclear operations for peaceful purposes.

Energy security

In retrospect, it is important to remember that the starting point of the journey of the UAE Peaceful Nuclear Energy programme commenced in 2006. Back then, the strong economic and social growth of the UAE caused a significant surge in electricity demand.

This power demand highlighted the need to bring more power generation technologies to increase the energy security and diversity of our electricity sector, reduce our dependence on fossil fuel for power generation, while also increasing our energy diversification and, most of all, deliver a more environmentally sustainable electricity sector.

The mandate was clear: the UAE required new power generation technologies to produce safe and clean electricity to power its growth over the coming decades. To achieve this, a strategic selection process to choose the power generation technologies commenced. This comprehensive process analyzed all the forms of proven technologies in the electricity generation industry.

It measured them against a series of strategic criteria which included the capacity to contribute to energy security, diversification and environmental sustainability. The result of this comprehensive process selected renewable energy and peaceful nuclear energy as the technologies to power our future, in a complementary manner, alongside the existing fleet.

Operational transparency was fundamental to our programme: it enabled us to receive nuclear energy experts and authorities from around the world, and instill the unique mindset of continuous improvement and lessons learned from the global nuclear energy within our programme

- Hamad Al Kaabi, Permanent Representative of the UAE to International Atomic Energy Agency

Coming to fruition

Today, it is remarkable to witness the delivery of that energy planning study coming to fruition. In renewable energy, the UAE has emerged to become the largest producer of electricity from renewable resources in the Middle East, producing an estimated 80 percent of the entire renewable power generation in the region.

While the UAE continues to significantly expand the use of renewable energy in its power sector, the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, BNEP, plays a strategically critical and complementary role: as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, states nuclear energy "remains the only major dispatchable low-carbon source of electricity other than hydropower".

In simple terms, it is the only generation form that can produce significant volumes of electricity around the clock, with almost zero carbon emissions.

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Barakah’s first reactor is undergoing operational tests and preparations Image Credit: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation

The four units of the Barakah plant will produce electricity safely and reliably, with a capacity to meet 25 percent of the country’s electricity demand. The production of electricity in Barakah will also enable the largest emission cuts in the history of the UAE electricity industry, saving the equivalent emissions of about 3.2 million cars every year. This will change the game for the electricity sector and set the Nation on a new path of sustainable development.

The technology selected for the Barakah Plant was chosen as a result of a robust selection process with safety, quality, efficiency, and reliability being key selection criteria. The APR1400 technology is the latest generation technology, meeting the most stringent safety standards, having achieved international accreditations, such as certification by the US-based Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, and having been approved for use by FANR. The reference plants for Barakah, Shin Kori 3 & 4 in South Korea have been operating safely and steadily for a number of years.

International recognition

Our programme also counts with robust international recognition, which is the result of an open-door policy set in 2008. Since the UAE published its National Policy on Peaceful Nuclear Energy, the country has steadily progressed in developing its civil programme to the highest standards of safety, security, non-proliferation and operational transparency, in full cooperation with the IAEA, as well as committing to partner with responsible nations, and finally, to implement the programme in a manner that assures long-term sustainability.

Notably, and as part of its commitment to the highest standards of nuclear non-proliferation, the UAE has pledged not to develop any domestic enrichment or reprocessing capabilities and has actually made these activities and their related facilities illegal within the UAE jurisdiction.

After a decade of development, I can confidently state that operational transparency was fundamental to our programme: it enabled us to receive nuclear energy experts and authorities from around the world, and instil the unique mindset of continuous improvement and lessons learned from the global nuclear energy within our programme.

I would like to highlight some remarkable examples that illustrate the commitment of our programme to operational transparency. In 2010, the UAE established the International Advisory Board, IAB, an independent panel of reputed international experts led by Hans Blix, former IAEA Director-General for four consecutive mandates from 1981 to 1997.

From 2010 to 2018, the IAB reviewed the progress of the UAE in achieving and maintaining the highest standards of safety, security, non-proliferation, transparency and sustainability. The group of internationally recognised experts in the fields of nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation met with all the entities involved in the development of the programme. They raised any and all questions, and captured their views in publicly available reports. But most importantly, they made our programme improve in every way.

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Constant collaboration

Presently, the case of the IAB remains unique in the world and a testimony of the commitments made by the UAE. The second example worth mentioning is our constant collaboration with international nuclear agencies and authorities, such as the IAEA and the World Association of Nuclear Operators, WANO. As a member of the IAEA since 1976, the UAE has seen a new phase of involvement in this organisation when it launched the UAE Peaceful Nuclear Energy programme.

Based on UAE government requests, the IAEA has conducted more than 11 major international peer-review missions to ensure the UAE programme and the nuclear infrastructure in the country comply with IAEA standards in safety, security and non-proliferation.

In fact, the UAE was the first nation to undertake the comprehensive International Nuclear Infrastructure Review, INIR, in 2018, receiving positive feedback and of course some areas for improvement, which have since been addressed prior to the commencement of operations.

In addition to the reviews, the UAE has been taking an active role in numerous international meetings and conferences, in order to share experiences and encourage learning. Of particular importance is the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety. The UAE has regularly provided national reports to the Contracting Parties to the Convention to provide updates on the progress the UAE has been making to ensure the safety of the nuclear energy programme. The reported progress has been open to peer review and discussions as part of the periodic review conferences of the Convention.

Together with the IAEA, we continue to support the development of civil nuclear energy around the world and call for operational transparency.

We also embraced the high standards of nuclear excellence from WANO and worked with many of its centres across the world to learn from the best global practice, train our local Emirati staff, and achieve a level of proficiency in nuclear operations and maintenance that would meet WANO standards.

Learn and improve

Today, the UAE is progressing safely and steadily with the development of its programme. It has completed the IAEA inspections, multiple WANO interactions, as well as hundreds of inspections from the UAE’s independent Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, FANR.

Moving forward, our country remains committed to continuously learn and improve, because we understand that the journey to excellence never stops. We will continue to take an active part across international platforms to share our experience and learn from others.

Through robust planning and implementation of the UAE Peaceful Nuclear Energy programme, transparency and strong international cooperation have been constant overarching principles. As a result, the programme is safe, secure and has become a model for other countries in the region and beyond.

While political opponents of the UAE and some individuals fundamentally opposed to nuclear energy have sought to criticize the UAE’s choice to embrace peaceful nuclear energy, objective experts in nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation, as well as those concerned about the dangerous effects of climate change, have overwhelmingly welcomed this choice and the conscientious way in which the UAE has implemented it.

As we get closer to the operational phase of the first nuclear reactor, due to commence in Q1 2020 following receipt of the Operating Licence from FANR - safety, security and nonproliferation will remain top priorities and commitments for the Nation.

— Hamad Al Kaabi is the Permanent Representative of the UAE to the International Atomic Energy Agency