The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced on Saturday that it had started operations in the first of four reactors at the Barakah nuclear power plant – the first nuclear power plant in the Arab world.
Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), which builds and operates the plant with Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), said in a press release that its subsidiary Nawah Energy Company “has successfully started up Unit 1 of the nuclear power plant in Barakah, located at the Al Dhafrah area of Abu Dhabi “.
This indicates that Unit 1, which had fuel rods loaded in March, has reached “criticality” – a sustained fission chain reaction.
“The start-up of Unit 1 marks the first time that the reactor has safely produced heat, which is used to create steam, spinning a turbine to generate electricity,” ENEC said.
Barakah, which was originally slated to open in 2017, has been hampered by delays and is billions of dollars over budget. It has also raised a myriad of concerns among nuclear power veterans who worry about the potential risks Barakah could run in the Arabian Peninsula, from an environmental disaster to a nuclear arms race.
Paul Dorfman, senior honorary researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London and founder and chairman of the Nuclear Consulting Group, criticized Barakah’s “cheap and cheerful” design of reactors which he said reduces safety.
Dorfman wrote a report (PDF) last year detailing the key safety features that Barakah’s reactors lack, such as a “core sensor” to literally prevent a reactor core from breaking through the containment building in the event of a fusion. The reactors also lack Generation III defense-in-depth reinforcements at the containment building to protect against radiological release from a missile or jet fighter attack.
These two technical characteristics are standard on new reactors built in Europe, says Dorfman.
There have been at least 13 airstrikes on nuclear facilities in the Middle East – more than in any other region of the world.
The vulnerability of critical infrastructure in the Arabian Peninsula was laid bare last year after Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by 18 drones and seven cruise missiles – an assault that temporarily put more than half of the kingdom’s oil production out of service.
On Saturday, Dorfman reiterated his concern that there is no regional protocol in place to determine responsibility if an accident or incident in Barakah resulted in radioactive contamination spreading from the United Arab Emirates to its neighbors.
Between 2009 and 2019, the average utility-scale solar photovoltaic costs fell 89% and wind by 43%, while nuclear jumped 26%, according to an analysis by the financial advisor and manager of ‘Lazard assets.
There are also concerns about Barakah’s potential to foment nuclear proliferation in the Middle East – a region plagued by geopolitical loopholes and a well-documented history of nuclear secrecy.
The UAE has sought to distance itself from bad behavior in the region by agreeing not to enrich its own uranium or reprocess spent fuel. He also signed the United Nations Additional Protocol on Nuclear Oversight, greatly enhancing inspection capabilities, and concluded an agreement 123 with the United States that allows for bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation.