Nuclear Transition in the UAE

Omar Fidawi
February 15, 2021

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2021


Fig. 1: The Barakah Power Plant, (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The United Arab Emirates is one of the most oil-rich nations in the world, producing close to four million barrels a day, and is in this sense an energy-independent nation. [1] However, it has been seeking to reduce its carbon emissions and follow in the steps of many other economies around the world. UAE leadership has recognized the difficulties of achieving this target while maintaining the strong dependence on fossil fuels. This has spurred investment in alternative and cleaner sources of energy. In particular, there has been a focus on implementation of solar and nuclear energy for electricity generation.

Current State of Nuclear Energy in the UAE

On August 1, 2020, the UAE announced the start of operations at the first of four nuclear reactors in the Barakah power station (Fig. 1) - after criticality was achieved by completing a sustained fission reaction. Each of these reactors can operate at a 1400 MWe capacity, meaning that eventually the Barakah power plant will account for 25% of the country's electricity production. [2]

However, there are lots of security concerns that have arisen, particularly around potential attacks on the plant, given some of the instability in the broader region. Some argue against the construction of nuclear power plants in such areas. This has led engineers to integrate features and systems to counter potential threats, such as radiation spills in case of attack. [3]

There is little official information available around the fuel sources and waste disposal mechanisms in place. Given the involvement of South Korean companies in the construction and management of the plant, there is a possibility they are involved with both processes. However, a recent study has highlighted that a "take-back by supplier" program is the most appropriate waste disposal solution for the UAE from political, technological and environmental perspectives though economic considerations, which are determined on a case-by-case basis, could render this infeasible. [4]

International Reaction

Many nations have expressed their views at the UAE adopting nuclear energy given how unexpected it was. Many of these suspect that, as an oil-abundant country, the UAE has another agenda focusing around building a nuclear arsenal. Yet time after time the UAE has reiterated its support for the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement of 2003 - and that its government is against the existence of weapons of mass destruction. [3]

However, the development of the plant comes at a time where the UAE has agreed to bilateral relations with Israel for the first time in its history, as it sees the capabilities held by one of its political enemies, Iran. [5] Qatar sees the development of the nuclear plant as a threat not just to regional stability but also to the safety of its territories given the proximity of the Barakah plant to the Qatari peninsula. [6]

Future of Nuclear Energy in the UAE

Demand for energy is not expected to slow anytime soon in the UAE, with a predicted annual growth rate around 4%. [3] This has led to discussions around an extreme scenario whereby the UAE would construct up to eight power plants to satisfy this additional demand. But while nuclear power is a very clean source of energy, the UAE should consider relying on other renewable sources, in particular solar. Its climate and abundant solar irradiance make it a great candidate for expanded solar PV installations. This could also eliminate any concerns associated with nuclear energy, both from a safety perspective and a proliferation one on the international scene. Moreover, the UAE should consider the fact it would need to obtain ores from abroad, thus potentially running the risk of large dependence on foreign imports to satisfy its energy demand. On the other hand, solar panels once installed require no fuel to operate and only minimal maintenance, clearly demonstrating the benefit of converging to a solar-based electricity strategy rather than a nuclear one.

© Omar Fidawi. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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.


[1] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2020," British Petroleum, June 2020, p. 14.

[2] J. Masterson, "UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality," Arms Control Today 50, No. 7, 42 (2020).

[3] H. J. AlFarra and B. Abu-Hijleh, "The Potential Role of Nuclear Energy in Mitigating CO2 Emissions in the United Arab Emirates," Energy Policy, 42, 272 (2012).

[4] H. Al Bloushi et al., "Spent Nuclear Fuel Management for the UAE," Proc. Inst. Civil Eng. Energy 168, 166 (2015).

[5] P. Baker et al., "Israel and United Arab Emirates Strike Major Diplomatic Agreement," New York Times, 13 Aug 20.

[6] H. Mjahed, "The Nuclearization of the Middle East," Policy Center for the New South, PB-20/76, September 2020.