By Bernhard Schell
Nearly one year after the launch of a nuclear fuel procurement competition in July 2011, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) has started an ambitious atomic power program. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) has awarded six contracts related to the supply of natural uranium concentrates, conversion and enrichment services, and the purchase of enriched uranium product.
UAE was founded in 1971, comprising seven states, which were under British rule. The federation includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Abu Dhabi city is the federal capital of UAE, and Abu Dhabi emirate accounts for 86% of the land area of UAE, and 95% of its oil. Dubai is the UAE’s largest city.
Enec estimates that the contracts are worth some $3 billion and will enable the Barakah nuclear power plant to generate up to 450 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity over a 15-year period starting in 2017, when the first of four units at the plant is scheduled to begin operating.
Enec has signed agreements with both France’s Areva and Russia’s Techsnabexport (Tenex). They will provide services across the front-end of the fuel cycle, including the supply of uranium concentrates as well as conversion and enrichment services.
The Canada-based Uranium One and UK-based Rio Tinto will also supply natural uranium, the USA’s Converdyn will provide conversion services and UK-headquartered Urenco will provide enrichment services.
The enriched uranium will be supplied to Kepco Nuclear Fuels – part of Enec’s prime contractor consortium, led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) – which will manufacture the fuel assemblies for use in the Barakah plant.
In a $20 billion deal announced in December 2009, Enec selected a Korean consortium led by Kepco to build four APR-1400 reactors. All four units planned for Barakah, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, should be in operation by 2020. The first concrete for the initial unit was poured in mid-July.
In an obvious bid to dispel possible doubts, official sources stress that the legislation adopted in October 2009, prohibits “the development, construction or operation of uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities within the borders of the UAE.”
The country has promised not to enrich and reprocess uranium or other fuel and to instead obtain nuclear fuel from reliable international suppliers, in line with the cooperation agreement signed with the USA.
In addition to the USA, the UAE has nuclear cooperation agreements in place with the UK, South Korea and France, plus a memorandum of understanding with Japan. In late-July, the country also signed a cooperation agreement with Australia, enabling the supply of Australian uranium to fuel its forthcoming nuclear power reactor fleet. Both Rio Tinto and Uranium One have uranium assets in Australia.
Enec CEO Mohamed Al Hammadi said: “The completion of the fuel supply strategy is a key achievement in Enec’s program and a clear example of how the UAE continues to set the gold standard for implementing a peaceful nuclear energy program. These contracts will provide Enec with long-term security of supply, high quality fuel and favourable pricing and commercial terms.”
Enec noted that it “expects to return to the market at various times to take advantage of favourable market conditions and to strengthen its security of supply position.”
The UAE is committed to a “dual track” radioactive waste management strategy that involves developing a national storage and disposal programme in parallel with exploring regional cooperation options.
Sweden’s SKB is studying the prospects of a geological waste repository in UAE, and the Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA), with a widened group of participating Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, is discussing regional options along the lines of EU precedents.
Learning from Fukushima
A notable aspect of the UAE’s decision to go in for atomic energy is that it has learnt from Fukushima.
According to Enec, though the Barakah site “is in an area with a very low probability of earthquakes” and that the area has been “tectonically inactive for nearly 100 million years,” it has nonetheless taken on board lessons learned from the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Several design changes were proposed including enhancing the seismic resistance of the back-up diesel generator buildings and other auxiliary buildings. In addition, watertight doors are to be fitted to these building in case of severe flooding.
In the event of a station black-out, Enec has increased the availability of fuel for the emergency diesel generators to allow 24 hours of operation rather than just 8 hours. It has also extended the availability of back-up battery power from 8 hours to 16 hours.
In the event of a severe accident, the Barakah plant design will enable external water injection to the steam generators, reactor coolant system and the used fuel pools.
Following a review by FANR (Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation) of Enec’s proposed changes to the Barakah plant in response to the Fukushima accident, the regulator concluded that “sufficient information has been presented to conclude that structures, systems and components in combination with proposed safety improvements will provide substantial margin above the design basis capabilities to ensure that a multiple-unit plant can be brought to safe shutdown condition or cope with and mitigate the effects of severe but low probability events.”
UAE’s nuclear power program is closely coordinated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which in the wake of an integrated nuclear infrastructure review (INIR) mission to the UAE reported in January 2011 that the emirates had followed its recommended comprehensive ‘milestones’ approach for such countries.
Areas of good practice identified by the mission included “cooperation, without compromising their independence, between the regulatory bodies and utility, human resource development, a well-structured management system, and a strong safety culture.” Also ENEC has joined the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) to benefit from its peer review process at the outset, to ensure high standards of safety.
The UAE is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and it ratified a safeguards agreement with IAEA in 2003. In 2009 it signed the Additional Protocol – thus pledging not to abandon the peaceful use of nuclear energy.