Power for the people
Clean, safe and environmentally friendly, the UAE's first nuclear power station is about to transform the country's energy supply
Three hours and nearly 300 kilometres west from the centre of Abu Dhabi, the space between shimmering desert and dusty sky resolves into a series of massive concrete domes.
These are the reactor buildings of the Barakah nuclear power station; and their impact is more than just on the landscape of the Western Region. Their presence is a statement of wider intent, of the commitment by the UAE to new forms of energy and proof to the world that the country is ready to join the nuclear power club.
Barakah will begin producing power in a matter of months, but the story goes back nearly a decade, when the UAE first announced that it was examining the nuclear option for its future energy needs. This was no small commitment. The decisions proposed in 2008 would impact lives for generations to come.
For some, the decision by the UAE to embrace nuclear power seemed strange. Here was a country sitting on vast reserves of oil, surely unconcerned and immune from any energy concerns.
Others were simply worried about the very idea of nuclear power in such a volatile region. Iran’s decision to create a civilian nuclear power programme was widely suspected as cover for developing nuclear weapons. In 2007, Israel – itself possessing nuclear warheads – attacked a site in Syria because it suspected the government of Bashar Al Assad was covertly building a nuclear reactor.
Then, in March 2011, a tsunami caused by an earthquake off the coast of Japan struck the Fukushima nuclear power plant, causing three nuclear meltdowns and the release of significant amounts of radiation. Within weeks, Germany announced it would shut down all its nuclear power stations and France declared it would cut its dependence on nuclear energy by a third.
By then, the UAE had already signed the 123 Agreement with the United States, allowing the US to share its technology with the Emirates. To pass a vote in Congress, certain conditions were met. Even before this, UAE had indicated it wanted inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and was willing to forgo the enriching and reprocessing of uranium fuel needed to power the reactors.
Late 2009 also saw the UAE Government pass Federal Law by Decree No 6 of 2009, Concerning the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, the so-called “Nuclear Law”, which created the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (Fanr), to cover every aspect of nuclear power, from construction to operation and eventually decommissioning, and all to international standards.
The scale of the licensing requirements can be gauged by the number of pages submitted by the developer of the plant, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), in support of its application: 35,000, or about 10 times the complete Harry Potter series.
The following year, Hans Blix was appointed as the chairman of Enec's international advisory board. Blix is a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a familiar figure on the world stage, from the Chernobyl disaster to the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction.
In his new position, Blix will give an expert and independent assessment of the UAE’s nuclear energy programme, reporting directly to the Government. As he wrote in this newspaper earlier this year: “I continue to be impressed that a nuclear newcomer nation remains openly engaged, seeking advice and making effective and appropriate decisions at each stage of development.”
Blix's presence and the international partners , including South Korea but also wider support from the US and other countries, such as an offer from Russian universities to assist with training, are a demonstration that the project has become useful in projecting the UAE's image diplomatically as a peaceful and sophisticated proponent of nuclear energy.
In a gesture of confidence, this May saw the UAE Cabinet, chaired by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, hold a session at the plant.
35,000 pages: Submitted by Enec in support of its licence application
25 per cent: Nuclear power's contribution to the UAE electricity supply within three years
US$3 billion: The value of contracts awarded to local companies
20 per cent: Women in the workforce; the highest for any nuclear power company
18 months: The approximate time a nuclear reactor can produce power before refueling
60 years: The operating lifespan of the plant's four reactors
As well as convincing the international community that the UAE could be entrusted with nuclear power, there were equally demanding technological obstacles to be overcome.
December 2009 saw the newly created Enec award the contract for the Middle East’s first nuclear power plant to a consortium of South Korean companies headed by the Korean Electric Power Company (Kepco) and said to be worth US$20 billion.
The collaboration is symbolised by the UAE and South Korean flags outside the main headquarters building, but also by a brightly coloured mural where a cartoon of the Korean pop sensation Psy prances alongside a cheerful Emirati yolla dancer.
South Korea’s expertise was essential to the project’s success. Its APR-1400 reactor is arguably the most advanced in the world, with a design life of 60 years. The UAE ordered four for Barakah, with construction breaking ground in 2011.
To operate and run the plant, an ambitious training scheme for young Emiratis was proposed, taking the best and the brightest on a mission to ensure the UAE’s energy security. To date, around 60 per cent of the workforce is Emirati, and fully 20 per cent female, the highest percentage of any nuclear power company in the world.
“We are proud of our youth working in the biggest nuclear project of its kind internationally,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. “They are the engine for the future’s accomplishments.”
Once operating fully by 2020, Barakah is expected to meet around a quarter of the country’s energy needs. But it will mean much more than that.
In the words of Mohamed Al Hammadi, the CEO of Enec, it will provide the backbone of the UAE’s future energy supplies, complementing existing sources like natural gas and the developing solar sector, but uniquely able to generate power night and day for up to 18 months without a break.
It will also do so in an environmentally friendly way. Nuclear power releases nothing but warm water; Barakah, it is calculated, will save the atmosphere from 21 million tonnes of CO2 a year, a significant gesture from a country that historically is regarded as having one of the world’s biggest carbon footprints.
The UAE’s Energy Plan for 2050 aims to cut CO2 emissions by 70 per cent and increase clean energy use by 50 per cent. These targets, and the predicted savings of Dh700 billion, will depend in great part on the success of Barakah.
“The good thing about nuclear power,” says Al Hammadi, “is that from a security point of view it is a clean, safe, reliable source of energy.”
Enriched uranium: Natural uranium is reprocessed as powder, then gas, cooled to a solid and formed into pellets. This increases the percentage of uranium-235 isotope to the three to five per cent needed for nuclear power. Nuclear weapons require 90 per cent enrichment, so uranium in power stations cannot be used to make them.
Nuclear reactor: Heat is produced by a controlled nuclear chain reaction and transferred to water, creating steam to drive the electricity generating turbines. Barakah has four reactors.
Spent fuel: Uranium pellets exhausted for fuel use will be stored on site in special water pools for up to 10 years, then in concrete dry storage casks for around 60 years before being sent overseas for reprocessing. The amount is small: since 1957, the waste from US nuclear power would only cover a football field.
Megawatt: A measure of power equal to one million watts. Some household appliances, such as light bulbs, are measured by the number of watts they consume. The four Barakah units will produce 5,600 megawatts.
There is a room hidden deep underground in each of the reactor complexes at the Barakah nuclear power plant, that a highly trained group of workers hope they will never need to visit.
This is the last option. When all else has failed, this room is where they can shut down the reactor and prevent a nuclear meltdown and potentially deadly release of radiation.
There is no reason why this should ever happen. Nuclear accidents make headlines – Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 – but all were preventable and the result of human error. The reality is that there are nearly 500 nuclear power plants in the world, almost all operating without serious incident since the mid-1950s.
Everything at the UAE’s first nuclear power plant has been designed with safety in mind. The site is located more than 300 kilometres from Abu Dhabi city and 70 kilometres from Ruwais, the nearest town.
The site is geologically stable and free of earthquake risk. Although on the coast, the possibility of a tidal wave or tsunami is equally remote (and it is worth noting that Fukushima was caused by a failure to carry out proper risk assessment rather than the wall of water ). The seaside location also provides an inexhaustible supply of water for cooling.
People, though, are what will make Barakah work. All have undergone many months of training, often accompanied by rigorous examinations. Much of this takes place in the Simulator Training Centre, an exact replica of the real control rooms in each reactor building.
A wall of 14 display panels allows every aspect of the plant’s operational status to be seen at a glance. More screens sit in front of the desks reserved for reactor operators and their supervisors, who can diagnose faults with a right click of a mouse that instantly accesses the correct page of the digitised handbooks that would otherwise fill an entire wall.
To the left of the flashing computer display is a smaller series of panels, oddly old fashioned with their dials, knobs and switches. This is an analogue replica of the control system, should the main digital network become inoperable. In a third, smaller room, in a different, secure location, another series of switches has the sole role of shutting the reactor down.
As part of their training, operatives may find themselves suddenly facing a simulated emergency, for example, dealing with broken uranium fuel rods contaminating the water that fills the fuel assembly.
Even though the accident is not real, the process, as one of the instructors admits, “can be a bit stressful. But the more realistic it feels, the more we can anticipate.”
The best view of the Barakah power plant involves riding several floors in a lift and then a brisk climb up several flights of stairs to a door the opens onto the roof of an administrative building.
It is worth the climb, and the blast of July heat and humidity that ends it. Spread out below is the entire site from the turbine rooms to the outlets in the azure sea that fills the horizon. But the view is dominated by a series of enormous domes like an industrialised version of a mosque. Three are complete. The fourth, and farthest from view, is still shrouded in scaffolding.
These are the reactor buildings, the key element in the generation of nuclear power, but also one of the most misunderstood.
For all the complex science that lies behind a nuclear reactor, it produces electricity through a process that would have been familiar to an engineer more than 300 years ago.
Water is heated to produce steam, then released under pressure to drive the blades of turbine, the motion of which produces electricity. All power stations work in this way, whether fueled by coal, gas or oil. To understand the power of this steam, just remove the valve from a heated pressure cooker.
What is different about a nuclear power plant is that the heat that creates the steam is created by nuclear fission rather than fossil fuels. Instead the reactors are powered by uranium, a naturally occurring chemical element, whose unstable nucleus can create a chain reaction that in turn generates heat.
After mining, natural uranium undergoes a number of processes, including conversion into a gas, enrichment and cooling into a powder, before being heated and shaped into pellets.
The enrichment process increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope to between three and five percent, the requirement for a nuclear reactor. Nuclear weapons require a uranium-235 concentration of more than 90 percent, so the uranium fuel for power plants cannot be used for this purpose.
The process, of course, is far more complex than that. But the benefits of nuclear power is that it is almost pollution-free. Unlike fossil fuel plants, it does not release any CO2 into the air. On the other hand, it does produce radiation.
The Barakah power plant is designed for all of the benefits while mitigating the risks. It will have four reactors, the first of which is 96 per cent complete. When the final reactor begins operating, planned for 2020, the plant will be capable of generating 5,600 megawatts of electricity. A megawatt is a million watts. A light bulb typically requires no more than 100 watts.
The plant uses pressurised water reactors. Uranium pellets are loading into rods, which are in turn fitted in a group as fuel assemblies (see graphic); 241 in each reactor. Water is pumped around the core under high pressure, heated by the process of nuclear fission.
The heat, or thermal energy, is then transferred to a secondary steam generator, a type of boiler that superheats water so that it acquires the quality of gas. Released into the turbines, it spins the blades of what is essentially a giant dynamo that generates electricity. This then leaves by the rows of pylons surrounding the plant and eventually reaches our homes and businesses. It is as simple as that.
Where it becomes more complicated is what happens next. The fuel in the assemblies is exhausted after around 18 months, depending on demand. Nuclear reactors can produce power night and day without a break, a distinct advantage over conventional fuel plants. And the uranium fuel is environmentally friendly. Unlike fossil fuels it does not release carbon dioxide, a contributor to climate change, into the atmosphere. The C02 savings for Barakah have been calculated at 21 million tonnes a year.
But the fuel at a nuclear power plant does have to be changed. At the end of their useful life, the uranium filled assemblies are removed and replaced with fresh supplies. Disposing of the old fuel is the biggest issue with nuclear power for two reasons. Firstly, because they are radioactive and secondly, because in the wrong hands they can be used as the basis for creating a nuclear weapon, either as part of a so-called “dirty bomb” or recycled to make a conventional atomic warhead.
The UAE has agreed it will neither enrich uranium nor re-process spent fuel. In the first instance, the spent rods will be cooled in steel-lined pools and then moved to dry casks, built of concrete and with another steel lining. Finally, they will be sent overseas for disposal.
These are the issues to come. The cooling process can take up to 10 years, and storage in dry casks can last for 60 years. Nuclear power is not just a commitment for our generation, but for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
Words: James Langton
Graphics: Ramon Penas
Photographs: Christopher Pike, Getty Images, WAM, Enec
Video: Courtesy Enec
Editors: Mo Gannon, James Langton
Photo Editor: James O'Hara
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017