x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Nuclear programme 'would rely on regulation'

Atomic energy in the UAE would have to balance safety regulations with commercial viability say experts.

A civilian nuclear programme in the UAE would depend on regulations that protect the public while allowing nuclear plant owners to recoup investments worth tens of billions of dirhams, experts say. The Federal Government is expected to make a formal decision on nuclear power this month and award a contract to build and operate the reactors in September, after a race involving three consortiums.

But the programme's success will ultimately be determined as much by the government regulator as by the companies that develop it, said Peter Wakefield, the deputy director of the World Association of Nuclear Operators. "For a plant to work well, it's not sufficient for it to be well designed," he told a nuclear conference last week, hosted by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) and Naseba, a French business information firm. "The aspect of the nuclear industry being closely regulated makes the regulatory risk much higher."

The Government began setting up a regulatory agency last year and hired Bill Travers, the former executive director for operations at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to run it. Government officials have stressed that the new agency operates independently from the nuclear programme's commercial arm, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation. The US is advising the UAE on its regulatory structure, said Bill Borchardt, the executive director for operations at the NRC, the post formerly held by Mr Travers.

Mr Borchardt said he was "absolutely impressed" at the progress of the UAE's programme, which aimed to see the first reactor operating by 2017. "The UAE is obviously very serious," he said on the sidelines of last week's conference. "They've engaged us and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in a very meaningful way." The development of nuclear power in industrialised countries is accompanied by the creation of a regulatory body to order and enforce safety standards.

The regulator can determine the viability of a nuclear programme, as it has the power to decide when plants are allowed to open, and order costly repairs or investments in new technology. In the US, some conservative critics have said overregulation was a main reason why nuclear power had sometimes been more expensive than initial forecasts. A new plant has not been ordered in the US for decades.

"There are many periods in time where plants had to stand idle for long periods until the regulator was confident," Mr Wakefield said. Mr Borchardt said the regulator needed to be fully independent from industry influences as it monitored the construction process, certified reactor components, performed inspections and informed the public about safety standards. He said it must not become "an unacceptable burden", but needed "sufficient power to protect public health and safety".

"The pursuit of nuclear safety is a never-ending process," Mr Borchardt said. "Nuclear regulation is the public's business, and it must be transacted openly and publicly." cstanton@thenational.ae