x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE confident over safety procedures for new plant

Plans in place to deal with radioactive waste and hot water generated by reactor.

Anyone who remembers the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 could be forgiven for expressing concern about the rise of new nuclear power programmes, even in this modern age. But the nuclear industry has made great strides in safety since the meltdown and explosion at the Russian-built reactor in Ukraine, and Abu Dhabi's Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) has worked to account for all manner of eventualities as it seeks environmental approval for the UAE's first nuclear complex.

Its long submission to the Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi outlines the state of the art thinking in nuclear technology and presents several possible environmental implications from the construction, operation and decommissioning of the four-reactor nuclear installation proposed for Braka. The biggest environmental challenge is the disposal of radiologically contaminated equipment, structures and non-fuel waste in 60 years, when the plant is decommissioned. As a result, ENEC plans to construct a "permanently secure nuclear landfill site", constituting "a permanent, irreversible, off-site, land use impact".

Yet one of ENEC's most immediate concerns has nothing to do with radioactive waste but with the large amount of hot waste water the power station would discharge into the Gulf. Atomic power generation requires unusually large volumes of water for cooling because nuclear reactions produce heat so intense that it can easily melt the fuel rods, as happened in the Chernobyl disaster. Where the intake water is warm to begin with, as it usually would be at any Gulf coast location, the water requirement is especially high because it can only be cycled once through the plant.

At Braka, the resultant stream of warm, chlorinated waste water, although diluted, would be up to 5°C higher than the ambient temperature of seawater near the site, affecting marine habitats including coral reefs. "Impacts will extend beyond the site boundary and the action will be permanent," ENEC said. "Permanent management and eventual disposal of radiological waste constitutes a potential terrestrial impact resulting from secure interim storage and permanent land disposal that is regional, permanent, irreversible and cumulative," ENEC wrote.

"Decommissioned nuclear reactors may be disposed of at only a very limited number of highly secure landfill sites around the world. "The residual radioactivity level is high and the impact is permanent, irreversible, potentially cumulative and regional." Important consideration must also be made for the millions of Gulf residents whose lives depend on desalinated water. Kuwait recently voiced concerns about the potential for radioactive contamination of the Gulf from Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which is due to start generating electricity within weeks.

The UAE raised similar fears in 2006 before announcing its own nuclear programme two years later. But ultimately, ENEC officials stress, the long-term environmental impact of the plant will be more than offset by the reduction in the use of oil and gas-fired power plants, which contribute significantly to local air pollution and global carbon emissions. tcarlisle@thenational.ae