UAE pursuing nuclear energy to meet electricty demand
Washington - Ten years after the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) declared their intention to study the development of civilian nuclear energy, only one — the United Arab Emirates — is actively pursuing nuclear power to meet its growing electricity demand.
The UAE expects the first of four 1.4 gigawatt (GW) reactors at the Barakah nuclear power complex in Abu Dhabi to become operational in 2017. By 2020, the UAE hopes to have all four nuclear reactors operating, supplying as much as 25% of the country’s power needs.
The GCC announced a desire to explore nuclear energy at a meeting in 2006, insisting that “the states of the Gulf region have a right to possess nuclear energy technology for peaceful purposes” — the same argument Iran has used to justify its nuclear programme.
That 2006 summit took place at the height of international concern over Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. Several months earlier, Iran had opened its heavy-water production plant in Arak, leading to fears that Tehran was focusing on obtaining plutonium. Several weeks later, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear programme. The GCC’s announcement, combined with developments in Iran, raised the spectre of a regional nuclear arms race.
Over the past ten years, however, GCC members Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman determined that, due to economic and security concerns, nuclear energy was not in their best interests.
The Kuwaiti government formed the Kuwait National Nuclear Energy Committee (KNNEC) in 2009 and a year later announced that country was considering building up to four 1GW nuclear reactors by 2022.
However, in the aftermath of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, the Kuwaiti government faced pressure from a vocal population about safety concerns and nuclear plans were abandoned.
The Fukushima incident also discouraged Oman from advancing its nuclear energy plans, according to comments by Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alawi bin Abdullah in October 2012.
Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding in 2008 with French power company EDF for cooperation on developing a civilian nuclear energy programme. Later that year, a Qatari state power company official said that low international oil and gas prices made the pursuit of nuclear energy “less economically viable” and “less attractive”.
Qatar subsequently raised the possibility of a regional nuclear generation project and, in late 2010, signed a memorandum of cooperation with Russia on the peaceful use of atomic energy.
Bahraini Electricity and Water Affairs Minister Fahmi al-Jowder said in December 2010 that Bahrain planned to have a civilian nuclear energy capability by 2017 but, by the autumn of 2012, the plans were on the back burner.
Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE) in April 2010 to develop “a substantial alternative energy capacity”, including nuclear. The following year, K.A.CARE announced ambitious plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors by 2032, with nuclear energy providing as much as 17.6GW of capacity.
The kingdom has signed a number of nuclear energy cooperation agreements with foreign governments and companies, several of which included studies regarding construction of nuclear plants. South Korean and Saudi officials agreed to a memorandum of understanding in March 2015 to study the feasibility of building two small to medium-sized reactors. A similar accord was signed with France several months later.
It is unclear whether Riyadh is serious about pursuing nuclear energy or merely wished to counter Iran’s programme. The timeline proposed by K.A.CARE in April 2013 envisioned construction on nuclear plants to begin this year but that does not appear to be in the cards.
K.A.CARE estimated the cost of building 16 nuclear reactors to be $80 billion. That price tag, coupled with sustained low oil prices, makes it improbable that nuclear energy is on Riyadh’s list of priorities.
Only the UAE among GCC countries has made rapid strides in nuclear energy. Royal decrees in 2009 established the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), which is responsible for the construction and operation of nuclear plants.
In December 2009, ENEC awarded a $20.4 billion contract to a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Company for the construction of four APR-1400 reactors with a combined capacity of 5.6GW at the Barakah complex in the far western desert region of Abu Dhabi. The site was chosen for its lack of seismic faults, availability of water for cooling and minimal potential for harm to the population and environment.
ENEC is on track to begin operating the first reactor in 2017. The project is the first to build four identical reactors simultaneously. Work on the fourth unit began in September 2015. The plan is to have all four reactors operational by 2020.