Infrastructure milestones #12: The UAE’s nuclear energy plan

The first nuclear-energy project in the Gulf is set to meet 25% of the UAE’s energy needs

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The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) in January announced that the construction of the concrete dome for the Unit 1 Reactor Containment Building (RCB) had been completed. The RCB is a critical structure in the nuclear plant’s defence-in-depth barriers, designed to confine and contain radiation even in the most extreme circumstances.

Rewind to 2008, when the UAE government announced that it was evaluating nuclear energy as an additional source to meet the country’s growing energy demand. The question on everyone’s mind was: with the seventh largest proven oil reserves in the world, does the UAE really need nuclear power?

The UAE leadership’s strategic perspective on nuclear energy was outlined in a policy paper released in April 2008. The paper forecast that the country’s electricity demand would escalate from 15.5GWe in 2008 to over 40GWe in 2020. It noted that supplies of natural gas, which powers 98% of the UAE’s power plants, were sufficient for only half of this demand, while renewables would be able to supply only 6-7% of the needed power by 2020.

The policy principles and commitments became law when the UAE issued the UAE Nuclear Law in October 2009. The same year saw the establishment of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) as an independent nuclear safety regulator, and ENEC as the commercial entity responsible for operation of the plants.

In December 2009, Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) was awarded the contract to build each of the four 1,400MW nuclear reactors at Barakah in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. Construction work on the first unit is 61% complete, and the second is nearing 50% completion.

ENEC is planning for one reactor to come online every year from 2017, with the fourth and final reactor scheduled for 2020.

The $20bn nuclear project has benefited over 1,000 local companies and has achieved 62% emiratisation.

Lady Barbara Judge, former chairman of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, has described the UAE’s nuclear energy programme as a “gold standard” and “one of the best new nuclear power plants to be built in the century”.

Once the project, designed to have ultimate capacity of 5,600MW, goes online in 2020, it will meet 25% of the UAE’s electricity needs while saving the country up to 12m tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

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