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Flashpoint

As part of its determined efforts to diversify away from its oil fortunes, the UAE last week announced that it had started operations in the first of the four nuclear reactors present at the nation's Barakah nuclear power station, the first nuclear reactor in the Arab world. Located in the Al Dhafra region of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi on the Arabian Gulf, the South Korean built 5,600 MW plant is expected to provide 25 per cent of the nation's energy demands when fully operational. For now, the reactor has just attained 'criticality' where a nuclear reaction can be sustained to produce energy. In the coming months, the reactor will be connected to the power grid for testing purposes before finally starting commercial operations later this year. As much of UAE's energy needs are currently met by gas-fired power plants, operation of the Barakah plant is estimated to prevent the release of 21 million tons of carbon emissions every single year, the equivalent of removing 3.2 million cars off the road every year. At a time when UAE is looking to establish itself as a world-class player in the science and technology sphere and climate change is a key issue, the Barakah plant is a decisive step forward. But, as is always the case with nuclear technology, things are not quite as simple.

The plant was supposed to have been opened in 2017 itself but ran into a variety of delays and road stops that saw the budget for the construction run billions of dollars over initially set estimates. In the meanwhile, the plant came under for a variety of reasons. These reasons broadly divide into two categories and both relate to the effect of the plant on the Arabian Peninsula. The first set of reasons relate to fears that the presence of the plant could give birth to some sort of nuclear technology race in the region which is already facing significant geopolitical divides. The second set of reasons relate to the fears of the plant causing an unprecedented environmental catastrophe in the region due to relaxed safety standards in the plant, lacking safety features and general lack of protocol for such facilities. This is especially concerning given the possibilities of attacks on the facilities, a very real threat in a region where critical energy facilities like the Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais have come under attack. Infact, the plant itself did come under alleged attack in the early days of its existence when in 2017, the Yemen based Houthi rebel group claimed to have attacked it.

It would seem that the UAE authorities are aware of such concerns and have attempted to allay them for quite some time now. The power plant has been inspected by at least 40 external review teams from various bodies. At the same time, the plant authorities and the Government have both repeatedly emphasised the peaceful nature of the plant. The nation has also signed a variety of nuclear energy cooperation agreements that, among other things, bar it from enriching uranium. Still, it would seem that UAE's insistence of peaceful use has not found an entirely receptive regional audience. Last year, Qatar approached the IAEA to intervene in the construction of the plant, claiming that it posed a serious threat to regional stability and the environment and calling for a framework to be made for safe use of nuclear power in the region. Qatar specifically chose to target two points of concern. First, that in the absence of any cooperation amongst neighbouring states regarding disaster planning, health and safety and the protection of the environment, any radiation leak could have disastrous consequences for the region where no system exists to assign liability in such cases. Second, Qatar questioned the use of relatively untested nuclear plant technology that only one other commercial reactor in South Korea used. Their concerns are not entirely unfounded either. The Chief Executive of Areva, the French multinational nuclear group was known to have compared the Barakah reactor design to a car without a safety belt or airbags. This comment came on the basis of what many experts claim is a lack of required safety features, the most pressing of which is the absence of a core catcher. The core catcher is a safety measure that retains the nuclear fuel once it has breached the reactor pressure vessel. Other problems related to cracks in the concrete structures of the four reactors and voids in the concrete have also been raised. It has also been noted that KEPCO, the South Korean manufacturer of the plant does not hold a stellar reputation at this point. Several scandals in 2013 saw many of the company's top officials being sentenced for falsifying safety documents for parts used in their nuclear reactors. KEPCO is known to have taken on the construction of the plant at half the budget given by almost every other firm.

All said and done, the use of nuclear power is no longer an issue for just one nation. Chernobyl proved as much for the world. Nuclear disasters generally do not limit themselves to a certain geographic area and given the geopolitical situation of the region, use of such technology is certainly even riskier. If the UAE does want to explore alternative energy sources to wean away from oil, the entire region has vast solar potential that would be cheaper and easier to bring to use than contentious nuclear power.

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