Construction is well underway on Unit 1 at the Barakah site. Image Credit: ENEC

Abu Dhabi: The UAE is going nuclear because it is a reliable and economical source of electricity that will save the country 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year, while also conserving the national hydrocarbon reserves for more profitable use.

The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), is on track to commission the first of four planned units of its nuclear power station in 2017, with one coming on stream each year till 2020, when all four will be operational. The construction at the Barakah site west of Ruwais on the Abu Dhabi coastline is proceeding as planned.

When ready, the Barakah site’s four 1,400 MW units are expected to produce 5,600 MW, which will be about 20 per cent of the total power requirements of the UAE.

“The UAE nuclear programme is a gold standard operation,” Mohammad Al Hammadi, CEO of Enec, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

“Whatever the commitments that the government made, we will do. The UAE approach is to work with a commitment to very high standards, on a peaceful programme which is fully documented and totally transparent. The UAE government issued in 2008 the Policy on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy, a document that committed the government, as well as the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, FANR and Enec to complete operational transparency,” he said.

“Since then, the UAE peaceful nuclear energy programme has reflected the commitments of this policy and has made the developments of the programme publicly available, and we have shared them with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, and engaged with them very transparently,” Al Hammadi said.

This insistence on complete transparency is to avoid any possible international political sensitivities around enrichment, and Al Hammadi reiterated to Gulf News that any enrichment of nuclear fuel in the UAE is ruled out.

Enrichment of fuel up to a certain level is important for generating electricity, but if enrichment is continued it turns the fuel into the raw material for a nuclear weapon. Therefore, the UAE will purchase or lease the fuel it needs, but will not do any enriching itself.

“By law, there will be no enrichment and no fuel processing in the UAE. All the technologies for fuel enrichment and processing are illegal in the country,” said Al Hammadi making it amply clear that the UAE is not following the same route as other nations that are adamant on their right to enrichment.

The UAE will either lease or buy its nuclear fuel. If it leases the fuel, Enec will bring the enriched fuel to the UAE, use it, and then ship it back to the supplier.

If the UAE buys its fuel, then it has various options for storing the used fuel. The plan is to store used fuel in a spent fuel pool for the short term of 10 to 20 years, and then move the used fuel to dry casks for the medium term of up to 100 years. In the event that it buys fuel, Enec is preparing for these two routes and, beyond that, it is keeping its options open.

“The UAE government is currently drafting the strategy and there is enough time to select the best option for the nation,” said Al Hammadi. “At this point of time, we don’t want to be married to one solution. Much later we could send it for reprocessing in other countries. From that we could get back about 25 per cent of the fuel, and re-use it in the power plant. But we do not need to do that now since fuel is available commercially in the market.”

To date, Enec has signed contracts worth about $3 billion (Dh11.01 billion) to supply it with fuel for 15 years from the start of operations in 2017. The companies are ConverDyn (US), Uranium One (Canada), Urenco (UK), Rio Tinto (UK) Tenex (Russia) and Areva (France).

Basket of sources

Nuclear power is one of several sources that the UAE will be using to generate electricity. The dominant one will remain gas for many years, but the UAE is also embarking on big projects in solar energy, with Masdar leading the way in research and implementation.

“We will have a basket of options, which is much better for the country than relying on one source,” Al Hammadi said. “Fossil fuel will continue for some time, but hydrocarbons should really be sold when the price is high, rather than being burnt to generate electricity.

“Using nuclear power is much more competitive than simply burning our fossil fuels, so it makes much more sense for the government to sell the crude on the international market and make more money than burning it in power plants,” Al Hammadi said.

According to the International Energy Agency, advanced nuclear energy and natural gas power plants are among the most efficient forms of electricity generation and are the backbone to provide baseload electricity to power the growth of the UAE. Nuclear energy power plants operate for extensive periods of time, up to 60 years and are able to run at 90 per cent of capacity factor, which is the electricity a generator actually produces with the maximum it could produce at continuous full-power operation during the same period.

The mix of hydrocarbon, nuclear and renewable energy that is needed to supply the UAE is reviewed at a strategic level every 5-10 years by Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, Adwea, which looks at the pool of supply.

“They check which source is cheaper and or more expensive, which is abundant or less able to supply,” Al Hammadi told Gulf News. “They will also look at projected demand, and the type of demand. For example, some requirements like desalination need steady consistent power which is well provided by a nuclear power station; whereas others need to allocate variable amounts of power for the peak requirements in the summer.”

Enec will sell its electricity to the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company, Adwec, which will take power from nuclear, gas and renewable sources and they will pass it on to the consumers. “The tariff is not our job. This is for the utility to decide,” Al Hammadi said.

Barakah construction

Enec is building two units on which construction has already started at the Barakah site, and it has just applied for regulatory approval to build the next two planned units on the same site.

The construction on the first two units started in July 2012 when Enec was granted a No Objection Certificate from the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, and a construction licence from FANR for Units 1 and 2.

“Our project is big. Four units is not small,” said Al Hammadi, although he agreed that the Barakah site could add more units in the future, if approved. “But we also have other potential sites in mind around the UAE if we need to expand the country’s nuclear mix,” he said outlining long-term plans.

Enec signed a contract with a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corporation, Kepco, for $20 billion, and that excludes the financial cost. “Kepco is the main contractor who is mandated to build the power plant, and there are suppliers and sub-suppliers from countries including Korea, Japan and the US.”

It is important for Enec that its technology and engineering are being tested in detail at a site in South Korea where almost exactly the same units are being built a few years ahead of the Barakah site. Nearly every company on site at Barakah is also working on the Korean nuclear site in Shin Kori, where units 3 and 4 are the reference plants for Barakah. By the time the UAE’s first unit is completed, it will be the fifth APR 1400 operating in the world, and the design will have just over 10 years of actual operating experience.

“We are very serious about the reference plant. Shin Kori is due to be operational next year and we will use the reference plant to check our process, but also to train our people in exactly the same working environment that we are building. But in addition, it is important that the APR 1400 is an evolution of the much older OPR 1400, so what we are building is not a new design,” Al Hammadi said.

Staff and training

Enec wants to attract and train the most talented science and engineering graduates, offering them a career in the emerging nuclear industry. By 2020 Enec will need 2,000 staff of whom 60 per cent will be Emirati.

“These 2,000 jobs are only the start,” Al Hammadi said. “The number of jobs at Enec will be multiplied by around six times as the supply chain builds up to service the UAE’s nuclear industry. And in addition we expect the high standards of the nuclear energy to ripple out into the whole of the UAE’s economy, having another important benefit.”