Two years after the UAE signed on for its civilian nuclear power programme, there are comprehensive safety reviews underway.
Civilian nuclear power drives an international safety culture
Today marks an important milestone for the long-term energy security of the UAE. On December 27 two years ago, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the UAE President, and his Korean counterpart, President Lee Myung-bak, endorsed a joint nuclear power plant construction project that cleared the way for the first civilian nuclear energy programme in the Gulf.
In giving the green light to the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and the Korean consortium headed by the Korea Electric Power Corporation, the two countries also helped to stage the region's nuclear renaissance, a "nuclear spring" in the global energy scene.
Many Arab countries had talked about their nuclear power programme for decades, but the UAE was the first to make it a reality. So with two years of project implementation behind us, this is a good opportunity to examine how far the UAE and South Korea have come, and how much is left to do.
When a country embarks on introducing nuclear power into its national grid, it brings enormous techno-socioeconomic infrastructure changes on a national scale. My country's energy and economic example illustrates this point clearly.
Once a sleepy agriculture country 40 years ago, the Republic of Korea was transformed into an economic and high-tech dynamo in Asia, thanks partially to the introduction of its first nuclear power plant in the 1970s, followed by full-scale deployment of nuclear industries. What's more, the concept of quality assurance and a basic safety culture, once so foreign to Korea, is now commonplace. Nuclear expertise is now a top South Korean export.
We are witnessing a similar transformation about to take place in the UAE. Nuclear infrastructure construction is in full swing including the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Authority (FANR), the owner and operator of the nuclear plants (ENEC), and the critical national security efforts. The UAE government has taken measures to prepare for the introduction of nuclear power by accepting international nuclear governance regimes of the highest standards, addressing safety, security and non-proliferation concerns with the IAEA and other major nuclear countries like the United States, Korea and France.
These protocols were tested with the Fukushima accident of March 2011. Triggered by an earthquake and tsunami of an unprecedented scale, Japan's disaster has brought yet another test and wake-up call on the importance of nuclear safety worldwide. Every responsible nuclear country, and aspiring ones like the UAE, are re-examining the safety and security of its nuclear fleet well beyond basic accident scenarios.
The UAE selected the Korean consortium because of the safety of the technology. When all four units of the third generation reactor system, known as APR1400, are completed by 2020 at Braka in Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi, it will deliver about 25 per cent of the nation's electricity. The plant will also help to transform the UAE from an oil-based economy towards a knowledge-based high-tech economy depicted in its Vision 2030.
But the UAE has not settled for international mandated reviews. It also took the prudent - and voluntary - step of inviting the world's most distinguished nuclear experts to provide an independent review of the nation's overall nuclear programme. Since 2010 the International Advisory Board (IAB), composed of nine well-known world nuclear experts and headed by Dr Hans Blix, the former director general of the IAEA, has been issuing biannual review reports.
Views of the IAB are recognised to be authoritative and independent, and open for public review. They address critical issues in safety, security, non-proliferation, transparency and sustainability.
The IAB's recent visit to Braka in November focused on the site-specific safety issues since Fukushima. Other generic safety issues are being addressed by using the example of the Korean reference plant, Shin-Kori Units 3 and 4.
In response to the reviews, the operator will provide sufficient engineering solutions to relevant safety concerns before FANR issues the licence to start construction of the reactor building, the first significant milestone known as the "first concrete". What is encouraging is the fact that the UAE has initiated a review system involving the IAB to solicit independent opinions from world experts and, more importantly, make it publicly transparent.
There are remaining challenges, perhaps none greater than enhancing national capacity in technical manpower to be able to operate, maintain and regulate the nuclear power industry. The UAE is recognised as the frontier of nuclear power among the newcomer countries by fostering concepts of nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation safeguards (known as "3S" standards).
One example is the Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute at Khalifa University to implement this challenge to integrate the 3S technologies and cultures through education and research. The second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March will focus on the 3S integration at the highest level. The international nuclear community is responding to join the Emirati efforts to make nuclear power the most safe and reliable source of energy in the years to come.
Kim Byung-koo is a former director of technical cooperation at the IAEA and a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology in Daejeon, Republic of Korea