x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Emirates powers ahead with the nuclear dream

In the aftermath of the meltdown at Fukushima in Japan, nuclear generation has slid worldwide. But the UAE is at the vanguard of a renaissance as safe, high standard facilities form a vital cog in the Emirates' energy plans.

Nuclear power plant in Barakah. 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. Courtesy Enec
Nuclear power plant in Barakah. 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. Courtesy Enec

As Japan continues to struggle to contain radioactive water leaking out of its Fukushima nuclear plant following the 2011 meltdown, confidence in atomic energy across much of the world is at a low ebb.

The UAE, however, is among the few countries bucking the trend as it advances its bid to become the first Arab nation to safely harness atomic energy for peaceful means on a commercial scale.

The country is now building two of four nuclear power reactors, with a capacity of 1,400 megawatts each.

The US$20 billion project, agreed in 2009, is a partnership venture with a South Korean consortium as part of the UAE's plans to produce nuclear electricity.

The facilities are scheduled to be fully operational by 2020, in line with the Emirates' aim for nuclear energy to provide up to a quarter of its electricity needs, which are forecast to soar to 40 gigawatts from 15.5GW now, and drastically cut its carbon footprint.

The South Korean consortium, led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco), is scheduled to complete the first reactor by 2017.

As South Korea's first foreign reactor sale, the UAE contract for the four-unit Barakah plant is likely to establish a template for future exports, Mark Holt, a specialist in energy policy, wrote in a June report for the US government's Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Construction of the first Barakah reactor officially began in July last year.

The selection of the Kepco consortium was made by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), which will oversee the contract's implementation. According to a statement issued by Enec, the contract includes major provisions, Mr Holt wrote, including that the Kepco consortium will design, build, help operate and maintain, and provide initial fuel for the four APR-1400 nuclear units. A "high percentage of the contract" will be under a fixed price.

In addition, Korean investors will have an equity interest in the UAE plants, and extensive training, human resources development and education is to be provided to enable the UAE to provide most of the nuclear plant staffing and develop commercial infrastructure and support businesses. A potential follow-on contract for long-term operation and maintenance of the Barakah plant, worth as much as another $20bn over 60 years,is under discussion with Kepco and other vendors, the CRS report stated.

In addition to South Korean ties on nuclear energy, the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in May signed a nuclear cooperation agreement.

Abu Dhabi's growing prominence as a nuclear power in Asia is reflected by the fact that South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have committed to take part in the New Nuclear International Conference - a major gathering of global experts focused on the development of peaceful nuclear energy - which is to be held in the capital this year.

The conference, which will be held at the Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi from November 11 to November 14, is being held in partnership with Enec and will bring international experts to provide the 700 or so expected delegates from around the world with key know-how in the initiation, design and launch of peaceful nuclear energy programmes.

The conference has the backing of the World Organisation of Nuclear Operators, the World Nuclear Association, the Arab Atomic Energy Association and the US-UAE Business Council.

In resource-hungry countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, nuclear power has long been used as a reliable alternative to fossil fuels but terrible tales of safety fears are making authorities think twice, especially after the Fukushima disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami two years ago.

But nuclear power is a major resource in Asia.

In Taiwan, it accounts for 18.4 per cent of electricity production, while in Japan it accounted for 30 per cent before the 2011 meltdown, while South Korea gets about a third of its electricity from nuclear power generation.

China has been aggressive in expanding nuclear power, as Beijing needs to reduce its reliance on dirty coal-fired power and cut air pollution, but the public is nervous since Fukushima, and people are sceptical of official assurances of public safety.

In just over 20 years China has gone from having no working nuclear power plants to becoming the biggest nuclear power market in the world by reactors under construction, with 28 at the latest count or 40 per cent of the global total, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

China has 15 nuclear reactors currently in service. In the aftermath of Fukushima, Beijing cut its 2020 nuclear power capacity target to 58GW from 80 to 90GW.

In an effort to make the process of nuclear power generation more transparent, this month China's largest nuclear power company ran an open-house event. The China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), operator of the Daya Bay plant in Shenzhen in Guangdong, China's biggest, said the event would help boost public trust in the safety of nuclear power.

"CGN has realised that ensuring production safety depends not only on technology, but also transparent operation and public supervision," said Hu Guangyao, a CGN spokesman. CGN is the only nuclear power firm under the direct management of China's state council, or the cabinet, with operational installed nuclear power capacity of 7.21 million kilowatts - 53 per cent of China's total.

Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world's most advanced, to give a four-fold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 58GW by 2020, then possibly 200GW by 2030, and 400GW by 2050, according to the World Nuclear Association.

CGN plans to launch dual initial public offerings (IPO) in Shanghai and Hong Kong next year, hoping to raise at least 20 billion yuan (Dh12bn), according to the official Shanghai Securities News website.

The report comes as signs emerge that an unofficial freeze on IPOs in mainland China might be thawing.

A planned CGN nuclear fuel processing project in the Guangdong city of Heshan was cancelled in July because of opposition from local residents.

Wu Yuxiong, the city's mayor, said while addressing complaints that local government respected the public's opinion and would not apply for approval for the project.

Public fears have delayed plans to build various projects in China.

Last month, a plan to build a $6bn uranium processing plant in the southern province of Guangdong was cancelled after hundreds of people took to the streets over public health and environmental fears.

It is not just mainland China. From Taipei, in self-ruled Taiwan, the news is grim, amid revelations a plant there may have been leaking radioactive water for three years, while a plan to build Taiwan's fourth nuclear plant has been held up for years by street protests.

The First Nuclear Power Plant, located at Shihmen not too far from densely populated Taipei, has apparently been leaking toxic water from storage pools of two reactors.

Authorities now believe there has been a catalogue of errors, including a lack of a proper plan for how to handle spent nuclear materials.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, six reactors are currently closed - three for maintenance or expiry of operational approval and the other three to replace cables supplied with forged documents. A huge investigation into forged documentation is now underway and arrests on graft charges have been made, including that of the former chief executive of the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power that runs all the country's nuclear plants.

In Japan, however, prosecutors are unlikely to indict Naoto Kan, the prime minister at the time of the Fukushima disaster, utility executives or regulators over their handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, rejecting complaints filed over the world's worst atomic accident since Chernobyl.