For UAE, the political perks of nuclear power eclipse economics

By Jim Krane, March 2, 2020

An Emirati examines a scale model of the Barakah nuclear power plant at a conference in Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo credit: IAEA.

The exclusive global club of nuclear power producers is welcoming its latest member: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an absolute monarchy that is one of the world’s leading oil producers and one of the world’s leading per capita electricity consumers.

In February, the UAE government in Abu Dhabi licensed the first of four 1.4 gigawatt nuclear reactors after 12 years of construction on the Persian Gulf coast at Barakah, just east of the UAE border with Saudi Arabia. When the remaining three reactors at the $25 billion plant are completed, Barakah will reach its total nameplate capacity of 5.6 gigawatts.

As the South Korea-led consortium loads fuel rods and tests the reactor’s output, the UAE will finally have a major source of zero-carbon electricity on a power grid that relies upon fossil fuels—mainly natural gas—for 97 percent of its electric power generation, a much higher percentage than that of other countries where consumption is high.

Share of Fossil Fuels in Electricity Production
The UAE’s electricity production is dominated by fossil fuels, in comparison with smaller amounts used in other very high per-capita consuming countries (IEA 2019)

Nuclear power confers several benefits to Abu Dhabi beyond always-on carbon-free electricity. These range from freeing domestic oil and gas for export, leveraging waste heat for desalination, and creating high-value employment. Going nuclear also enhances the UAE’s strategic profile at a time when climate concerns are calling into question the long-term stature of major petrostates like those in the Persian Gulf.

UAE’s growing energy needs. A big injection of electricity into the national grid is the most immediate and palpable benefit. The wealthy UAE is one of the largest per capita electricity consumers in the world. Prodigious power consumption there is a function of some of the world’s worst heat and humidity—air conditioning is the top source of demand—combined with generous government subsidies for electricity.

The UAE has struggled to meet growing demand for its main power generation feedstock, natural gas, from domestic sources. In 2008, the same year it announced the Barakah project, the UAE became a net importer of natural gas.

The monarchy has sought to further diversify its power sector by turning to solar power, and by building the largest coal-fired power plant in the Middle East, the forthcoming 3.6 GW Hassyan plant, also scheduled to power up this year.

The UAE’s combination of high demand for electricity and high percentage of fossil fuels in its power mix has led it to become a disproportionately large emitter of greenhouse gases. The desert federation counts just 0.1 percent of the world’s population but emits 0.8 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide—more than Egypt, with a population 10 times larger.

When complete, the Barakah plant will provide nearly a quarter of UAE’s power supply without adding to the growth in emissions.

The Abu Dhabi model. Strategically, nuclear power is a big deal for a state that has moved quickly from a doctrine of noninterventionist neutrality to one of active participation in conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.

The UAE is now the third nuclear-competent state in the Middle East. Israel, with its stockpiles of nuclear weapons, was the first. Iran, with its single one-gigawatt nuclear power plant at Bushehr (just across the Gulf from the UAE’s) was second. Iran’s uranium enrichment program has extended to levels beyond that needed for electricity production, suggesting that it might follow the secretive Israeli path toward weaponization.

The UAE is leveraging nuclear power in a different way. It has committed to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Convention on Nuclear Safety to secure international cooperation. The UAE’s 2009 agreement with the United States explicitly bans the Gulf country from developing technologies needed to enrich uranium and reprocess spent reactor fuel.

Advocates tout the “Abu Dhabi model” as a path to climate-friendly electricity while safeguarding against proliferation and the potential for development of a breakout nuclear weapons capability.

The drawbacks. Abu Dhabi’s experience with nuclear power has been difficult, and the country’s National Energy Strategy 2050 suggests that no further nuclear development is in the cards. Cost thresholds and completion deadlines fell by the wayside years prior to completion of the first reactor. The complexity, toxicity, and strategic sensitivity of nuclear power make it an uncompetitive choice based solely on competitive cost calculations.

Abu Dhabi’s difficulties with Barakah began at launch in 2008 with the over-ambitious nine-year start-up deadline, then set for 2017. Unrealistic expectations were undermined during construction by revelations that the main South Korean contractor KEPCO justified its low bid for the plant by dropping post-Chernobyl safety features, including an extra wall in the reactor containment building.

KEPCO was also said to have built Barakah’s prototype reactor in South Korea using counterfeit cables and other parts procured using forged safety documents. Retrofitting of the Korean plant delayed the training of the team of UAE operators. Some counterfeit Korean parts were apparently installed in the Barakah plant as well, but few details have emerged about whether they have been replaced. In 2018, inspectors found and repaired “voids” in the concrete walls of Unit 2 and Unit 3. These issues contributed to the three-year delay in bringing the all four Barakah rectors online. The project has been subject to criticism by analysts who argue that the plant’s reduced safety features and other deficiencies render it more susceptible to a radiation release, including in the event of a military strike. The latter is not a remote possibility; in 2017, Houthi rebels battling UAE forces inside Yemen claimed to have targeted the Barakah plant in an apparently unsuccessful cruise missile strike.

The strategic benefits. For the UAE, the successful completion and operation of a major new nuclear power plant has compensatory strategic benefits that could make the project worthwhile.

The UAE’s foray into nuclear power comes alongside the increasing international stature of Abu Dhabi and its increasingly forceful interventions in the region.

Abu Dhabi’s nuclear investment allows the state to leverage an oil windfall to meet essential long-term power needs. Nuclear power’s long time horizon—the Barakah reactors may provide electricity until 2080—provides an ideal vehicle for transferring today’s oil wealth to future generations.

From the perspective of an autocratic regime like that in Abu Dhabi, there are further political benefits from civil nuclear power. Nuclearization tends to involve measures that bolster the strength and control of the state through increased internal security and enhanced coercive apparatus, justified by the technology’s inherent hazards. Vulnerabilities in nuclear systems also create new requirements for secrecy and surveillance, and less tolerance for dissent. In these ways, protecting the fuel cycle does double duty in bolstering regime security and vigilance.

For Abu Dhabi, “going nuclear” may also increase the West’s stake in the survival of the regime. At the moment, the US commitment to hard security protection for the Gulf monarchies, under the so-called Carter Doctrine of 1980, appears to be wavering. Missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities in 2019, apparently conducted by Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen, did not bring about a US military response. The shale revolution that has allowed the United States to become the world’s largest oil producer has prompted worries about the longevity of the US commitment to the region.

For Gulf Arab rulers who fear that Washington is not a reliable long-term guardian, nuclear power generation may offer an alternate path to maintaining a US strategic interest in securing their regimes.

The United Arab Emirates offers a test case worth watching.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. The original version contained incorrect details about the counterfeit cables at the prototype reactor and the misstated the reactor units in which voids were found in 2018.

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