Back in 2008, Mohamed Al Hammadi was working diligently in a classroom at the offices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), learning how to develop nuclear technology and infrastructure for the UAE.
Fast-forward to the present day, less than a decade later, and the GCC state is home to the largest single-site, under-construction nuclear project in the world. Moreover, Al Hammadi is now CEO of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), the developer behind Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant.
“[The project] started in 2008, with a clear mandate to develop a nuclear power plant in the country. Today, it is a great achievement that we are very proud of,” Al Hammadi tells ITP Media Group publication Construction Week.
Located some 53km west of the city of Ruwais, in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi, Barakah boasts four massive dome containment units, each of which houses a Generation III+ APR1400 nuclear reactor. With each reactor capable of generating as much as 1,400MW, the facility will be able to produce up to 5,600MW of energy once fully operational. ENEC expects all four reactors to come online in 2020.
This output, says Al Hammadi, will meet approximately one quarter of the UAE’s electricity needs, and will supplement other energy sources, making for what he calls a “basket of energies”.
Remarking that the country’s population is witnessing double-digit growth, Al Hammadi stresses that electricity demand will only continue to rise, necessitating a diversification of the UAE’s energy sources.
“There’s a plan to create a dynamic, flexible basket of energies. Nuclear will play a major role in that equation. We’ll still need [natural] gas; we’ll still need renewables. We’ll need all sources of energy because the country continues to grow,” he explains.
Commenting on the decision to invest huge sums in the project (last October the UAE raised $24.4 bn in financing for the plant with most of the cash coming from state sources) he continues: “The good thing is that it is a clean, safe, and reliable energy source, and there is no question about that. There are no CO2 emissions. Once all four units are operational, [the UAE] can avoid around 21 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.”
Spreading the load
Unlike most sources of renewables, which are subject to the whims of sunshire, wind or tides, nuclear energy provides consistent output. Each reactor at Barakah is designed to run uninterrupted on an 18-month fuel cycle, making the facility an excellent source of base-load electricity.
Henry Berry, engineering director at ENEC, elaborates on the reactors’ 18-month cycle, saying: “We call it breaker-to-breaker. When you start a fuel cycle, you get 17 months of operation, plus one month of maintenance or outage. We load fuel once in a cycle and operate continuously, generating electricity 24/7. Depending on how well the plant runs, it might be a little less or a little more than 17 months but, generally, we’ll be on an 18-month cycle.”
Noting that each of the reactors has an operational lifespan of 60 years, Al Hammadi reiterates his point about the UAE’s energy basket. “Looking at it from an energy-basket point of view, they’re all complementary. Solar gives you good power at peak times; nuclear gives you base load; and natural gas gives you flexibility, because you can switch it on and off. It’s a beautiful basket of energies for the UAE,” he says.
In July 2017, on the same day that Construction Week visited Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, ENEC announced that cold hydrostatic testing (CHT) had been completed for the facility’s unit two, approximately 12 months after unit one passed the same test.
CHT, according to the company, is used to verify that the welds, joints, pipes, and components of the reactor coolant system and its associated high-pressure systems comply with the standards of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR).
Established in 2009, the same year that ENEC was formed and the prime contract – valued at $20bn (AED73.5bn) – was awarded to Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO), FANR is the regulatory body responsible for ensuring that the plant’s design, construction, operation, and eventual decommissioning adhere to international standards of safety and quality.
Successfully completing FANR requirements, such as CHT, is treated as a huge milestone by ENEC, owing to the stringency of the regulator’s standards and policies, and the exhaustiveness of the processes involved in securing approvals and licences.
Just how exhaustive? Well, the first construction licence application that ENEC submitted for Units 1 and 2 was a 9,000-page document. FANR reportedly took 18 months to review the application, before sending it back with what ENEC officials describe as “requests for information”.
In fact, Al Hammadi’s team were asked to answer approximately 3,000 follow-up questions. The initial document was submitted in 2010, and construction on unit one only commenced in 2012.
To date, ENEC has submitted more than 35,000 pages of licence applications to FANR, with the last being the operating licence application for units one and two, submitted back in March 2015 and for which ENEC is awaiting approval.
“Progress on unit one is now at 96 percent, so we are only 4 percent from starting the power plant,” says Al Hammadi, adding: “All effort is [now] going to the quality review of the plant; to dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, [and] checking to make sure that the power plant is built to specification, as per our regulatory requirements.”
In May 2017, ENEC received its first batch of fuel assemblies for unit one. Those fuel assemblies are now at the plant, where they will be stored until the unit is cleared by FANR to go online.
As part of its fuel procurement strategy, ENEC entered into contracts with six suppliers for materials and services. US-based ConverDyn will provide conversion services, while Canada’s Uranium One will supply natural uranium. UK-headquartered URENCO will provide enrichment services. Another British company, Rio Tinto, has been contracted to provide natural uranium. Russia’s TENEX and France’s AREVA, meanwhile, will both be supplying uranium concentrates, conversion services, and enrichment services.
“Fuel is waiting to be loaded and, once we get the operating company to receive all the approvals from the regulator, we will have the plant operational,” says Al Hammadi. Nevertheless, he stresses that ENEC’s current focus is to ensure that the plant is compliant with all standards and regulations on nuclear safety, and that Nawah Energy Company is ready.
Nawah, a subsidiary of ENEC, will be responsible for operating and maintaining all units of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant. Having signed a joint venture agreement with ENEC in October 2016, KEPCO owns 18 percent of Nawah, as well as Barakah One, which represents the commercial interests of the power station.
“We are expecting 2018 to be the year we start operating the plant,” says Al Hammadi, adding that unit two is already more than 85 percent complete, while progress at units three and four are at 74 percent, and 51 percent, respectively. “When exactly? Once we meet all the [FANR] requirements.”
Peace for our time
FANR has also been tasked with enforcing the commitments that the UAE made in its Policy on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy, which was published in 2008, serving as the foundation stone of the country’s Peaceful Nuclear Energy programme.
This mandate on the federal authority, according to ENEC, is important because the UAE is determined to demonstrate that nuclear energy can be used for “peaceful purposes without opening any doors to different uses”.
One way it is trying to achieve this is by outsourcing enrichment services for the uranium.
Enrichment, explains Maryam Qasem, head of nuclear fuel fabrication procurement at ENEC, refers to the process of increasing the percent composition of the isotope uranium-235 from 0.72 percent – the amount found in natural uranium – to 5 percent, so the uranium can be used to generate nuclear energy for electricity purposes.
Qasem notes that the process carries risks because uranium can be used to develop nuclear weapons by increasing the isotope composition to 90 percent – a risk that the UAE government wants to avoid. So, as part of its peaceful nuclear energy programme, the emirates has also decided against allowing fuel reprocessing in the country.
Meanwhile, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is reportedly among the long-term waste management strategies that the UAE government, which is in the process of developing a national radioactive waste management policy, is considering. But even if the government does decide to conduct reprocessing, it too will be outsourced in a bid to prevent the possible proliferation of plutonium, which can also be used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Qasem explains that after the uranium goes through the reactor and undergoes nuclear fission, different elements are produced, one being plutonium. “What reprocessing does is separate the uranium from the plutonium – that is the source of concern,” she says.
Qasem adds that while it remains to be seen whether or not the government opts for reprocessing, the country still has time to weigh its options because its current waste management strategy allows for 70 to 80 years of safe storage at the Barakah site.
According to ENEC, spent fuel will initially be stored in concrete- and steel-lined spent fuel pools for ten to 20 years, to let it cool. It will then be moved to concrete and steel containers called dry casks, where it can be stored for up to 60 years.
Berry emphasises that if there is one overarching principle governing Barakah – from design and construction to operations and waste management – it is safety. Safety, he says, is the top priority; hardly surprising given it is often the public’s biggest concern, especially in light of incidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that took place in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Indeed, Barakah has been designed to withstand events that precipitated the Fukushima incident.
“Fukushima came largely as a result of an earthquake and a tsunami, so we revisited our design and reconfirmed that it was very robust. The UAE has very low potential for those types of events because there are no fault lines nearby and the Arabian Gulf is too shallow to produce a high tsunami wave, even if a seismic event occurred,” he explains.
Berry concludes: “We used the Shin Kori plant in South Korea as our reference plant, so we actually have a plant that is designed to withstand earthquake levels in South Korea, even though we don’t have the same potential for earthquakes [in the UAE]. We didn’t want to [compromise,] so our plant is very robust.”
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