x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Explaining the Emirates' nuclear plans to the public

The company building the UAE's first nuclear power reactors has put effort into summoning popular support. Questions for the man tasked with talking to the public.

Entering the lobby of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), the government company building the country's first reactors, is a bit like visiting a toy store.

A model of the power plant to be built in Abu Dhabi's Western Region includes miniature cars, palm trees, spent-fuel pools and reactor cores. Nearby, visitors can examine a replica of uranium fuel rods that are to provide the emirate with up to a quarter of its electricity by 2020.

The model is part of the company's tools in bringing the public on board with its ambitious plan, which envisions the first two reactors being online in the next seven years. Fahad al Qahtani, the acting director for external affairs and communications, explains Enec's strategy.

What is the importance of getting the public behind this?

It is very important of course. First of all, the UAE is a young country. For the past 40 years, the UAE has embarked on mega projects, whether it was oil and gas, infrastructure or other industries. So the public in the UAE, they're used to having major projects and they know the benefits from these mega projects. They see it in their day-to-day lives. So when the UAE civil nuclear project was announced, people were not surprised. They know the energy industry is a major industry here in the UAE, and they know that the UAE is diversifying, whether it is the economy or energy away from oil and gas into other resources.

How close is the proposed site to the nearest person?

The closest population is in Ruwais, which is about 54km away from the site. That's pretty much it, and this is one of the criteria and one of the reasons Braka came to be our favourite site.

With any plan there may always be some detractors. Have you found any so far?

We received questions, very valid questions, curious healthy questions. We were asked about safety, we were asked about environment, we were asked about the justification behind the decision, especially in an oil-rich country. We were asked about security, we were asked about jobs, academic opportunities - we were asked about all details. We get a lot of very valid questions. Recently a lot of the questions revolved around seismic history and seismic activities and the measures taken to cater for seismic activities, if any.

Are you planning any additional campaigns in light of Fukushima?

It's not in light of [the Japanese nuclear accident in] Fukushima. [Enec] is a new organisation. Our team is growing, so we have more resources in communications now. I can do more of these forums because I have more employees … In regards to Fukushima, it just added to our list of questions. And the questions we get are what happened over there, how are the technologies different, and how is the geography different.

Is the strategy to get public support different here than we would see in other countries?

It's a strategic and critical project for the country, and the country did it after extensive research determining its needs for more energy resources. So it's extremely critical that the population of the UAE will understand the scope, the justification and how it's done. Regardless of where you are, that is always critical. It is extremely critical for the success of the project to have the acceptance and support from the general public and the different stakeholders.

And are there any other unique ways of gaining public support?

It's an ongoing exercise. It's not just one campaign.

What's your biggest challenge in educating the public?

Sometimes electricity is taken for granted, and sometimes you need to start from the beginning and tell your story right. But in general we've been always received positively. We get a lot of good, healthy questions. And we answer them, and we always have very good support and very good acceptance. I wouldn't call it a challenge, it just takes time and effort to get these tools developed and in place.

ayee@thenational.ae