x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Nuclear watchdog resists deadline in Abu Dhabi plant evaluation

Regulator says he will not be bound by a schedule for assuring safety of the Arab world's first-ever reactor.

ABU DHABI // The independent nuclear watchdog will not be bound by pressure to meet any schedule when it begins evaluation of a proposed nuclear power plant project this year, its chief said yesterday. 

The nuclear plants planned for Abu Dhabi, the first of their kind in the Arab world, need to undergo a lengthy safety check by the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), expected to begin in December.

The company behind the reactors, the Abu Dhabi Government's Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), wants to have the first plant up and running in seven years. But William Travers, FANR's director general, says his agency will take as much time as it needs to complete the review.

"If you want to keep pressure on people on the programme to perform, I think it's not a bad idea to set ambitious targets," he said. "I don't see it binding to FANR."

"Being the regulator means that ultimately we have the authority to make a judgment. At the end of the day if FANR is convinced of an issue or a problem, I think it ends there. The expectation is that when we make a safety judgment we won't be second-guessed."

A rough timeline for the review is 18 months, he said, depending on the quality of ENEC's application. Regulatory review has delayed nuclear power projects in Europe, the US and South Korea for years. FANR, designed by law to be fully autonomous, has worked hard to demonstrate its independence from ENEC and other government entities.

It receives a budget from the federal Government but will soon begin levying fees on ENEC and other applicants, such as operators of specialised medical equipment, Mr Travers said.

FANR will in the coming weeks pick one or more technical consulting firms that will give it the technical expertise to evaluate ENEC's application in detail, he said.

ENEC's reactor will be built by a consortium of South Korean companies led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco).

The design, known as the APR-1400, is under construction at several sites in South Korea, but has not yet been approved by any other country's regulator.

FANR will rely heavily on the results of a safety review conducted by the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, Mr Travers said, but will ultimately complete its own review.

He endorsed the US-designed reactor system, known as System 80+, on which the Korean model is based.

"I happen to know the Combustion Engineering 80+ system, and I know it's an improvement on previous designs that are already operating safely in the US," he said.

The backup safety system of the APR-1400 was called into question by Finland's nuclear regulator, STUK, earlier this year.

STUK was not convinced it could contain radioactive material in the event of a reactor meltdown, the agency's director general, Jukka Laaksonen, said in August.

The agency required Kepco to design a concrete "core-catcher" that would sit under the core and act as a last line of defence.

FANR, however, would align with the US, Japan and other countries in taking the position that a core-catcher was not needed, Mr Travers said.

"We think we're aligned in the way we're developing our approach with a large part of the world," he said.

Certain approaches to nuclear safety had an "asymptotic" effect on the level of safety, making the design negligibly safer, he added.

"If you look at safety goals, like the probability of 10 to the minus six [one in a million] kind of an accident, it really becomes in some ways a question of working the asymptote on the curve," he said. "How much more benefit are you going to get as you work the bottom of that curve?"

He said transparency was crucial. "We first go out to governmental agencies for comment on our draft regulations," he said. After that, most of the regulations will be posted on FANR's website, attracting feedback from the public. Some of these proposals will be presented to the regulator's board.

cstanton@thenational.ae

kshaheen@thenational.ae