There are around 440 operational nuclear power reactors in 30 countries today. About 60 reactors are under construction in 15 countries. Countries introducing nuclear power for the first time, called “newcomers”, face a number of key challenges in infrastructure development: completing a national strategy for the programme, developing legal framework and an independent nuclear regulatory body, establishing a competent operator and building a skilled workforce.
Embarking on a nuclear energy programme is a serious undertaking that requires political will, long-term commitment, financial resources, as well as the implicit responsibility to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place. It is imperative that the development of the legal, regulatory and support infrastructure has to keep pace with the construction of the power plant itself in order for the programme to proceed in a safe, secure and sustainable way.
In 2009, the UAE Government took a decision to launch a peaceful nuclear energy programme to meet the nation’s electricity needs. Nuclear power is expected to contribute up to 25 per cent of the UAE’s peak electricity demand by 2020. The country launched its policy on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy in 2008, adopting principles of operational transparency and highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation.
The UAE was the first newcomer country to start building a large nuclear power plant in three decades, when it started constructing the Barakah plant in 2012. Despite the fact that the UAE is a newcomer to the nuclear industry, it has set a role model globally by achieving in a record time requirements needed to ensure its nuclear infrastructure support the programme through the highest levels in nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation. Also, the country builds at the same time its national capacity for a sustainable operation.
The UAE Nuclear Energy Programme is a major achievement for the country’s people and the region. The establishment in 2009 by the UAE government of the Nuclear Law, and the independent nuclear regulator — the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) — to oversee nuclear safety, security and its sole purpose for peaceful uses was a clear sign of adherence to the policy principles of 2008. The government also set up the operator of Barakah Nuclear Power Plant by establishing the Emirates Nuclear Energy Cooperation-Enec in late 2009.
During the initial phase of the nuclear programme, FANR developed the necessary legally binding requirements for the safe siting, construction and design of the reactors to be built as well as for the needed security arrangements to be applied. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 further demonstrated the importance of strict safety requirements, and FANR consequently evaluated the construction based on further innovative design enhancements to address extreme conditions that might occur. This included enhancement in the areas of environmental effects on the reactors, as well as additional cooling and power supply measures.
In parallel, the government signed international agreements and conventions supporting the programme developments. Of particular importance to FANR are the agreements with the country of origin regulatory bodies which allowed FANR to leverage the work of the Korean regulators to license the reference plant in Korea, the Shin Kori 3 and 4 reactors. Also, the support of the IAEA was instrumental in ensuring that the FANR approach to regulation was in agreement with best international practice.
The UAE has ratified a number of international instruments under FANR mandate: the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, the Conventions on Physical Protection and its Amendment, the Nuclear Safety Convention as well as the Joint Convention on Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management reflecting the UAE’s peaceful nuclear energy programme.
Not only is the safe operation of the reactors important, FANR is also ensuring that radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel are being dealt with safely from day one of the operation and during all phases including decommissioning. Moreover, the long-term aspects are being considered by developing a policy on the long-term management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.
Public acceptance and stakeholder support are key factors in the UAE nuclear programme. So for example, regulations developed or revised by FANR are being published on the authority’s website for stakeholder and public comments. Public perception of benefits and risks associated with nuclear power are indispensable for the successful deployment of a nuclear programme. Public awareness helps build and maintain trust in regulatory competence and efficiency. Transparent and participative processes at all stages of a nuclear power programme are crucial for fair and consistent decision-making, as well as for harnessing the full potential of the nuclear sector.
Building a sustainable national capacity is a challenge for any country using nuclear power. In newcomer countries, nuclear projects necessarily dictate a reliance on a foreign workforce and expertise, particularly at the beginning of a project. To address the challenge of ensuring the availability of sufficient manpower throughout all phases of the nuclear programme, FANR, inspired by the UAE leadership philosophy, developed a robust human resources strategy that identifies the scale and type of expertise needed. It is an integrated approach that includes scholarships and on-the-job training and mentoring. Youth empowerment and capacity building are key priorities in our policy.
Nuclear Power is an integral part of the UAE Energy Plan for the future. It is our mandate to make sure it is used safely and securely ensuring its benefits for the generations to come.