From the very beginning, the UAE has applied the highest possible standards to its nuclear programme.
Gold standard applies in UAE nuclear energy programme
Currently, 33 countries around the world are relying on nuclear energy to generate electricity. The UAE is now joining that group, with two of its four planned nuclear units under construction in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. The adoption of nuclear energy will diversify the country’s energy supply, ensure energy security and support its climate change ambitions. But even more important in its approach to the development of its nuclear energy programme is establishing a model that should be followed by any nation considering nuclear energy in the years ahead.
I am fortunate to have a ringside seat for this historic transition. As chairman of the Nuclear Safety Review Board for the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), I have the privilege of observing the country’s decision-making and management processes that are impressing energy experts around the world for their rigour, their openness and their close attention to the lessons that have been learnt in the construction and safe operation of more than 503 nuclear energy plants internationally.
The first groundbreaking step was the very decision to build nuclear energy plants in the UAE. After studying energy options closely, the country recognised that only nuclear energy could provide the electric power its growing economy needs over the coming decades without the environmental impact of carbon-intensive electricity generation sources. To achieve this vision, in 2009 Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, announced the creation of Enec.
With that decision, the UAE became the first major oil-exporting country in the Arabian Gulf region to add nuclear energy to its generating base. The primary reasons were clear: the country does not produce enough natural gas to meet all its future electric generation needs, and burning that much oil – or coal – would add significantly to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But significantly, from the outset, the UAE Government also emphasised other major factors in the decision: it will help to diversify the economy by creating the opportunity for local suppliers and services to raise their quality assurance standards and become internationally certified nuclear-grade providers, and it will create thousands of high-skill, high-value technical and engineering jobs for young Emiratis.
Enec established clear, strategic priorities for the nuclear programme – and they were the right ones. My perspective on this comes from my background as a nuclear engineering professor and more recently as chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates all commercial nuclear power activities in the United States. The US nuclear energy programme has been a spectacular technical success in thousands of reactor-years of operation, since the first nuclear plant began operating in 1957. The main reason: an overriding philosophy of “safety first.”
Significantly, in the initial announcement of the UAE peaceful nuclear programme, the nation emphasised this same safety first priority. And from the outset, they have been open and fully cooperative with all international nuclear organisations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. The country developed its own independent nuclear regulator – the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) – and staffed key leadership positions with experts in nuclear regulation from across the world.
In any major construction project, there will be minor problems that arise. The important thing is that Enec and FANR have the processes and culture in place to identify and correct them. I have seen evidence of that overriding philosophy first-hand.
Enec has stringent quality assurance standards and measures. FANR requires the constructor and operator to provide detailed quality certificates for all significant materials used in the construction of the plant. In addition, Enec works closely with nuclear energy experts from around the world to identify and adopt best practices.
And Enec keeps raising the bar as best practices evolve, including applying lessons learnt from Fukushima. In July 2011, just four months after the accident, I traveled to Japan with the Nuclear Safety Review Board to understand what happened and why. Enec welcomed this first-hand perspective and incorporated changes to the plant design that would better safeguard the reactors under construction at Barakah.
To me, one of the strongest indicators of safety first is open communication and public participation in decision-making. FANR and Enec have shown a vigorous public engagement process that includes information forums around the country, notices for public comments on official documents, active engagement with outside agencies and experts, and regular reviews with respected international authorities. When the world can see the decisions being made, the reasons behind them and the processes that demand and assure quality in all materials and systems, then you can have confidence that the design, construction and operation are being conducted according to the highest principles of public and employee safety.
Beyond its strategic emphasis on power plant safety, the UAE is serving as a valuable model on another essential issue: concern over the possible proliferation of nuclear materials. The UAE has complied with every international treaty and resolution. In 2009, the country signed a bilateral agreement with the US expressing its commitment to international guidelines for nuclear activities, including the careful and open management of used nuclear fuel.
All these actions have shown that the first three principles spelled out in the UAE’s nuclear energy policy are receiving the attention they deserve: complete operational transparency, the highest standards of non-proliferation, and the highest standards of safety and security.
Enec has shown its determination to abide by these principles in countless other ways as it has ramped up the national nuclear energy programme: education of students to give them the skills and expertise to provide the manpower required, continuous improvement of core competencies training, open two-way communication with the public, continued refinement of policies and procedures, and systematic application of the lessons learnt from the safe operation of nuclear plants.
The UAE likes to use the term “gold standard” for its nuclear energy programme. At this point, the phrase seems an appropriate one.
Dale Klein is associate vice chancellor for research in the office of academic affairs at the University of Texas