x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Nuclear points of procedure

The construction contract for the country's first nuclear reactors is in, now everyone is waiting for government regulators to make the next move.

Nuclear power stations under construction in Busan, South Korea.
Nuclear power stations under construction in Busan, South Korea.

The contract has been awarded and the celebrations have passed. Now comes the hard part: designing the reactors to suit local factors and obtaining the licences necessary to build them from industry regulators unlikely to disregard even the smallest details. Chris Stanton reports Though the company was the centre of world attention last week, the inside of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) almost felt abandoned. Staff walked past row after row of empty desks in a building that is still very much under construction.

Within the next two weeks, those seats will be successively filled with the arrival of scores, then hundreds, of South Korean engineers and nuclear experts, who will kick-start the laborious process of constructing the UAE's first nuclear power plant. ENEC's award of a US$20 billion (Dh73.46bn) contract to a Korean consortium to build and start four reactors by 2020 has set off one of the largest construction projects in the nation's history.

The spotlight now shifts to the Government safety regulators who will oversee the project and determine whether it gets a green light. ENEC and its partners will not pour a single batch of concrete or place one steel beam for the new power plant for at least two years. Instead, they will modify the reactor's design to meet local climate and geological conditions and submit their blueprints for review by the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), which holds the power to grant a construction licence.

FANR, charged with overseeing everything from the safety of the plant to the handling of nuclear fuel to the use of radiation in medical equipment, has sweeping powers as an independent body to order design changes or to reject ENEC's application entirely. FANR, which is conscious of the Abu Dhabi Government's timetable for getting the first plant operational by 2017, can take as long as it needs to complete the review, which will cover a version of the Korean design modified for use at whatever site is ultimately chosen by ENEC, said Dr William Travers, the authority's director general.

"We're trying to position ourselves so we're ready and we wouldn't be a handicap in an efficient and timely review of a well-prepared proposal," Dr Travers said. "But the bottom line for us, and the reason we're established and the way we're established as an independent federal regulator, is that safety, security and safeguards have to be job one. "Our review will take the time that it takes to reach a conclusion."

While ENEC and its partners will probably be allowed to build roads and some buildings on site before obtaining the construction licence, Dr Travers said all "safety-related" construction will have to wait. The process is "very likely to take more than a year", he said. ENEC's chief executive, Mohamed al Hammadi, said last week the team hoped to begin pouring the concrete foundation for the plant, considered the first safety-related work, by 2012.

The concrete "will be put on the site under the regulators' supervision and approval", Mr al Hammadi said. "The licensing is a very detailed process." The application for the licence is expected to be filed later this year, said Padraic Riley, the ENEC director of external affairs and communications. Before FANR can judge any of ENEC's work, it will need to lay down its own standards on nuclear safety and security, ranging from regulations on radiation exposure to the siting of nuclear power plants, Dr Travers said. The draft regulations will be made available on the authority's internet site in the next few months for comments from the public, he said. They will then be reviewed by FANR's board for approval.

Recent history has shown that the success of a nuclear power plant project relies heavily on proper planning and a good relationship between the builder and regulator. In Finland, the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant is running more than three years late and is nearly 100 per cent over budget. The Finnish regulator STUK has blamed Areva, the prime contractor, for the delays, saying it failed to adequately plan for the project and is ultimately responsible for a cracked concrete foundation poured by subcontractors.

In turn, Areva has criticised STUK, saying it created unnecessary regulatory hurdles to the construction process. The two sides have taken their claims to arbitration. In South Korea, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, a subsidiary of Korea Electric Power Corporation, applied in 2003 for a construction permit for two reactors at Shin Kori using the APR 1400 design, the same one selected for Abu Dhabi. The permits were not granted until April 2008 because of bureaucratic and political delays and the reactors are not expected to be completed until 2013 or 2014, a delay of three or four years from their original start date.

Licensing for two previous reactors of different design at Shin Kori took more than two years, leading to complaints from the Korean nuclear industry that politicians were hindering the process. The reactors are nearly completed after receiving licences in January 2005, with the first expected to begin operation in December. Dr Travers, formerly the executive director for operations at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is hoping to head off any such trouble by working closely with the Korean regulators that licensed the two APR 1400s for Shin Kori.

Though the APR 1400 design will require some modifications for the warmer waters of the Gulf and to protect the plant against sand and dust storms, the process will be broadly similar to Korea's, Dr Travers indicated. "We hope to take advantage of what the Korean regulatory authority can provide us," he said. "The APR 1400 is based upon US technology, specifically the Combustion Engineering 80+ system, and you know a number of us have some familiarity with that particular pressurised water reactor design."

Regulation has proved to be crucial in slowing reactor construction around the world and driving up costs, said Stephen Thomas, a professor of energy studies at the University of Greenwich and a frequent critic of nuclear industry cost estimates. "In some respects, only having it under construction and review in Korea is an advantage," he said. "If the US or European regulators were looking at it, they would take at least five years and throw up all sorts of issues that could change the cost."

The pressurised water reactor is the most common type of nuclear plant. Under that model, water is heated by passing it through the radioactive core and prevented from boiling through immense pressure. The high-pressure water, run in a closed loop, warms a second cycle of water into steam through a conductive wall called a heat exchanger. The resulting steam, which does not contain radiation, is then used to turn a conventional turbine to generate electricity.

The pressurised water reactor designs on the market, while similar in concept, include important differences in nearly all of the internal equipment. The arrangement of uranium fuel, the type of steel vessel that surrounds the core and the set-up of a control room used to regulate the process all vary. It is FANR's job to know everything about those components and to conduct frequent inspections to ensure that every weld and piece of the plant, however small, is completed to specification.

Once construction is complete, ENEC will apply for another licence which will allow it to begin operating the plant. "Firstly, [ENEC] has to be convinced that the site and the design work together," Dr Travers said. "Ultimately, it's our job to make a similar and independent conclusion of the same thing and if we can't reach that, they're going to hear about it from us rather quickly." @Email:cstanton@thenational.ae