x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Abu Dhabi "must be ready" to store spent fuel, says Hans Blix

Abu Dhabi may have to develop storage capacity for spent fuel from the nuclear power plants that will become operational from 2017, says the former head of the UN's nuclear watchdog.

Hans Blix was for 16 years the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Karen Bleier/ AFP
Hans Blix was for 16 years the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Karen Bleier/ AFP
Abu Dhabi may have to develop storage capacity for spent fuel from the nuclear power plants that will become operational from 2017, says the former head of the UN's nuclear watchdog.
Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), the owner of the four reactors being built in Barakah in Al Gharbia, this month signed a US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn) deal to receive sufficient uranium to fuel the plant for 15 years.
So far, no arrangements have been made to deal with the nuclear waste arising from the programme.
Abu Dhabi is considering several options, including a scheme to effectively lease the fuel - sending it back to the supplying country after it has been spent.
But the emirate should provide for a fall-back option too, said Hans Blix, who was for 16 years the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until 1997.
"Any country that launches into nuclear power must also be ready to eventually take care of [spent fuel] within its own territory because an arrangement with a foreign country could one day collapse," he said.
Moreover, large-scale fuel leasing has not been practised elsewhere, casting doubt over the viability of the approach.
"Until now, fuel leasing has been inhibited by the unwillingness of supplier states to take back spent fuel," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's nuclear policy programme.
"The international marketplace generally assumes that spent fuel will remain the property of the country that uses it."
The Government is as yet undecided on its spent fuel strategy, with both fuel leasing and disposal in geological repositories under consideration.
"We're evaluating all these options," Hamad Al Kaabi, the UAE permanent representative to the IAEA, told The National recently.
Abu Dhabi's reactors are part of the first civilian nuclear programme to be initiated since the Chernobyl disaster in1986 first dampened the enthusiasm for atomic energy.
Confidence in nuclear power took another knock with the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in the wake of the last year's tsunami in Japan.
Mr Blix, a lifelong advocate of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, believes the sector will bounce back and Abu Dhabi's programme will encourage neighbouring countries to follow suit.
"The UAE has so far stood out as a shining example that it can be done. Saudi Arabia seems to be determined in [a] grand way and I think they will probably look at and learn from the Abu Dhabi experience," he said.
Although the UAE has launched a programme to train local engineers and technicians for the industry, a shortage of staff will mean Abu Dhabi, and other prospective programmes in the region, will draw heavily on foreign expertise for some time to come.
"They will have to rely on expats to a great extent," said Mr Blix, who chairs the International Advisory Board, a group of experts advising the Government on the Barakah programme.
fneuhof@thenational.ae