The UAE should grab the opportunity to be a model for the nuclear newcomer countries.
Promoting a culture of safety that grows from the ground up
I recently saw a warning sign by a building under restoration in Abu Dhabi. "Tiles falling from this building," it read. "No responsibility accepted." And then I remembered how a friend in the nuclear industry was telling me that the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan last year was kismet - fate.
Both of these claims are dangerously false. Promoting a culture of safety, whether it's protecting people from falling tiles or nuclear disasters, requires vigilance, accountability, and above all, responsibility. This is especially true now, when the UAE has started constructing a building that will be required to stand for the next hundred years.
Last month, the UAE made history by giving the green light for the construction of the country's first nuclear power plant at Barakah. The challenge for the UAE now is to continue investing in future generations to run a safe nuclear programme. But how?
Many think Barakah's construction approval was important because it was the first concrete move towards nuclear energy among the Gulf nations. Others believe its significance rests in the fact that it is the first Arab nuclear energy programme among many to actually take off.
But in truth it's bigger than either of these assumptions.
Nuclear energy, and its safe, secure, peaceful use, is a global issue. Before Fukushima, there were more than 60 countries asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help with launching their nuclear energy programmes. Fukushima slowed this trend. Some countries decided to phase out and some not to expand their nuclear capacity.
However, the need for energy did not vanish, especially not for those developing nations interested in diversifying their energy sources. That is why we still have Turkey, Vietnam, Belarus and dozens more working on their nascent programmes, each at their own pace and development levels.
That is exactly why the UAE's move is historic. The Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, which I worked for until recently, is the first regulator to approve the construction of a country's first nuclear power plant in 31 years. The last such two were in Romania and China, both in 1981. And we can only make guesses about the independence of the safety regulators during the communist era.
In other words, the world is watching the UAE very closely. Yes, the Emirates has done a lot in four years since it launched its peaceful nuclear energy programme. But safety issues will put a limit on how fast it proceeds.
Human resource capacity is probably the biggest challenge that lies ahead for the UAE programme. Technology can be imported. Top notch international experts can be hired. But the global pool of experienced nuclear experts is shrinking. The world is trying to find ways to maintain knowledge as experts from the nuclear boom of the 1970s are about to retire.
The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), which owns the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, FANR, and Khalifa University have launched joint and independent programmes for training the first generation of Emirati engineers and technicians. A well-thought scheme is under way. Yet, everyone must realise: this is a marathon, not a sprint. People need years of experience to run the control room of a nuclear reactor.
These training efforts will also require a shift in thinking about safety. Like that sign on the building raining tiles, thinking about safety must permeate all levels of society.
According to Health Authority Abu Dhabi, in 2008 road traffic accidents caused two thirds of all fatal injuries in Abu Dhabi, the most populous of the seven emirates. According to the World Health Organisation, the UAE ranks seventh in the world for road fatalities per population, only beaten by Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Angola. Add to this recent cases of workers falling from scaffoldings, children falling from windows, and many other accidents reported in the UAE media.
The UAE needs a grass-roots safety initiative. It needs to show the world that a safety culture prevails across the country, from the motorway to the nuclear power plant. It must show that modern technology does not need to cost lives. It needs to show that tailgating or texting while driving, not wearing a helmet on a motorcycle, not watching your child is not a trivial offence.
In short, engineering the human-machine interface must not be confined to the nuclear power plant site. Only then can the UAE convince its people that a high-tech edifice such as a nuclear power plant is built and run safely.
ENEC and FANR have both studied Fukushima and implemented lessons learnt. Surely they are aware of the recent Japanese parliamentary report, which, in summary, said that while the natural disasters were of extraordinary proportions, the nuclear power plant accident was Made in Japan.
Nuclear safety culture requires 24-hour thinking. It is a way of life, for everyone involved, from the delivery lorry driver to the safety inspectors. The UAE has the chance to be a model for the nuclear newcomer countries. It must embrace it.
Ayhan Evrensel, a Vienna-based nuclear communication expert, is a former spokesperson for the IAEA, and FANR in Abu Dhabi