|Fig. 1: The First Unit of Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in the UAE is Expected to be Fully Operational in 2017.  (Courtesy of Power Magazine)|
The United Arab Emirates (UAE or Emirates) chose a Korean-led consortium to build four 1,400-megawatt nuclear power plants for the Emirates Nuclear Energy Cooperation (ENEC) in December of 2009.  Currently, the UAE is ranked the 6th largest crude oil producer in the world and has the 7th largest natural gas proved reserves.  Why would a country with such energy resources make such an expensive deal for a type of energy that it doesn't have the fuel for? Emirates does not have a major reserve of Uranium.  This report summarizes why Emirates initiated its nuclear energy program as well as sheds light on the progress and the impact this endeavor left on the country up to this point. Fig. 1 shows the first Barakah nuclear power plant that is expected to be fully operational in 2017.
We attempt to answer the first question: why would Emirates pursue a nuclear power program? If we look at the UAE's gas production and consumption data shown in Fig. 2, we notice that the gas consumption surpassed the gas production in 2008. Interestingly enough, 2008 marks the year when Emirates became a net gas importer. The large gas consumption can be attributed to two reasons. The first obvious reason is that Emirates is expanding its economy and building many factories that need gas to operate. We can see from Fig. 2 that the total energy consumption has risen by an average of 6% from 2004 until 2014. Another not so obvious reason is that the UAE is using gas re-injection as an enhanced oil recovery process in its oilfields. Because of the aforementioned reasons, Emirates is looking to diversify its energy portfolio to meet the local consumption requirement. Its energy portfolio not only includes the addition of nuclear power but also the utilization of renewables.
|Fig. 2: Some of UAE's Relevant Energy Statistics. [8-10] (Source: M. Almajid)|
Perhaps the latter is best portrayed by Masdar city that is being developed in the UAE. Including nuclear energy into its energy mix is a boost because nuclear energy is a sustainable, consistent source of energy when compared to renewables. Fig. 4 of Sgourdis et al. shows this best as the energy generated using nuclear energy is consistent over time.  We note that the figure is not based on real data but is a simulation of the energy mix that Emirates intends to implement in the future.
The other interesting question that we would like to ask is: how is the UAE progressing in the nuclear program? Mohamed Al Hammadi, ENEC's CEO, stated that the UAE hopes that nuclear energy along with renewables will provide more than 30% of the nation's needed energy by 2020.  The first reactor is due to be operational in 2017. Following 2017, the plan is to put one reactor online each year until 2020. [5,6] ENEC is also hopeful that it will acquire enough expertise in key areas such as cooling system that will be necessary for the safe and successful operation of the reactors when they all come to reality.
The local climate is a huge hindrance as the temperature can rise significantly to levels above 50 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the air is usually dry in that area and high volumes of sand and dust can storm at any time. Any company designing a nuclear reactor should take all of these factors into account in the design stage. Mr. Al Hammadi ensures that these factors were taken into considerations and necessary adjustments were made to the design.  These adjustments include:
Increasing the water flow rate of the cooling system by installing larger pumps, heat exchangers and pipes.
Ensuring that the discharged warm water does not find its way back into the intake structures by increasing the distance between them.
Adding more air conditioning to mitigate the high temperature, dry air, and dust effects.
Another big challenge for UAE is the availability of Uranium which it does not possess? Where will the fuel come from in the long term? Eckart Woertz who is currently a senior research fellow associate at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB) encourages the UAE to think about where they will get their Uranium from 20 to 30 years from now.  In 2012, Australia agreed to sell uranium for Emirates in a $200 million deal.  The deal showed the faith the Australians have in UAE's peaceful nuclear program. The challenge to the UAE will be to keep the country stable amid the current, volatile environment in the Middle East.
The UAE is on track to accomplish its planned schedule of commissioning the four nuclear plants in May of 2017 and the first reactor will start discharging the spent nuclear fuel in 2018 or 2019.  ENEC's CEO reports that the first unit was at 76.9% completion in mid-October.  Public acceptance of nuclear energy in the UAE is consistently increasing. This is achieved by launching various forums, led by ENEC, that tackle the concerns of the public. The results of two surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012 show promising results. The percentage of people in favor of nuclear energy increased from 66% and 82% in 2011 and 2012, respectively.  Another beneficial side effect form the nuclear program is that ENEC started to take interest in developing the skills of the local people. That means more job opportunities will open up and more scholarships will be offered to newly high school graduates to continue their education. Another nice thing to notice about this is that women are actually allowed to work in such facilities. 
Even though the UAE has one of the largest oil and gas proved reserves in the world, it is looking to diversify its energy portfolio by building four nuclear reactors. The first reactor is expected to be fully operational in 2017. Nuclear energy provides a sustainable, consistent, and carbon-free energy source for the country but the Emirati electricity grid infrastructure needs to be improved. It would be interesting to see how the reactors will react to the dire weather in the Middle East and if there will be further improvements to the design that other neighboring countries can benefit from when they start embarking on nuclear energy. The Emirati nuclear experience, up to this point, can be considered positive. It promises to add one energy source to the country's energy mix and open job and scholarship opportunities to locals.
© Muhammad Almajid. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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