Four nuclear reactors are under construction in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The nuclear power plant is named Barakah – Arabic for Divine Blessing.
Why have the Emirates invested in four new nuclear reactors, will their operation further destabilise the volatile Gulf region, and what are the key safety, proliferation, security, and environmental risks?
The South Korean winning bid for the construction of the UAE reactors was spectacularly low, about 30 percent lower than the next cheapest bid, with the chief executive of a French nuclear corporation comparing the Korean reactor to a car without airbags and seat belts.
This is because the Barakah reactors don’t contain essential safety features such as either additional reactor containment or a ‘core-catcher’ – both of which are expected in all new nuclear reactors in Europe.
The decision not to include additional defence in the Barakah reactor containment building is important, since they’re designed to defend against significant radiation pollution release in the event of an accidental or deliberate large airplane crash or military attack – issues that recent events have brought into stark relief.
The Gulf faces unique challenges when it comes to nuclear power. The tense geopolitical environment makes nuclear power an even more controversial issue here than elsewhere, since Gulf states are worried that neighbours could use their civilian nuclear programs for military ends.
Unless enrichment of uranium and reprocessing technologies are effectively regulated against diversion of civil materials for military purposes, the reality is that new nuclear power plants can provide the cover to develop and make nuclear weapons.
Whether that capability is turned into actual weapons depends largely on political inclination.
UAE’s neighbors, the Saudi’s, have made it clear on more than one occasion that there’s another reason for their interest in nuclear energy technology which was not captured by the royal decree on their nuclear program –the relationship of the civil program to nuclear weapons.
This is hardly news to US government officials negotiating the Nuclear Co-operation Agreement. As a former high-level US State Department official noted: "I have not heard them say out loud ‘We want to pursue enrichment to have a nuclear weapons option,’ but I think it’s fairly clear that is on their minds."
Although the UAE suggest otherwise, there remains the possibility that the Emirates may also decide to pursue advanced nuclear fuel cycle capabilities.
One issue will be the fate of separated plutonium, and whether overseas reprocessing will encourage the UAE to use plutonium-based fuels at Barakah.
These fresh plutonium-bearing mixed oxide (MOX) fuels, pose a more serious proliferation risk than spent fuel or low enriched uranium fuels, and up to 30 percent of the Barakah APR1400 reactor cores can be loaded with MOX fuel with minor modifications.
Here it’s worth noting that UAE has just renewed its Memorandum of Understanding on nuclear fuel cycle management with Tenex, a subsidiary of the Russian state nuclear corporation ROSATOM.
The World Nuclear Association have confirmed that Tenex will also provide 50 percent of Barakah’s enrichment capability, worth some $500 million, indicating the emergence of a potential back-channel for the Emirates to obtain advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies.
As recent military strikes in the region infer - including those against Saudi oil refineries - the Gulf is one of the world’s most volatile regions.
In the case of the UAE, nuclear safety revolves around the broader issue of security, especially since some armed groups may view UAE military operations as a reason to target nuclear installations, or intercept enriched uranium fuel or waste transfers nationally or regionally.
Such back-draft from foreign policy and politics more generally, will increasingly dovetail with regional nuclear safety considerations.
Disconcertingly, Yemeni rebels have already claimed to have fired a missile at the Barakah nuclear power plant site in 2017. UAE subsequently denied the claim, insisting it had an air defence system capable of dealing with any threat.
Yet the protection of the UAE nuclear plant with fighter aircraft or surface-to-air missiles may not be an easy task, and time available to scramble fighter aircraft or fire surface-to-air missiles may prove limited.
Added to which, a significant increase in the maritime transport of radioactive materials into and through the Arabian Gulf will occur once Barakah begins operation.
Maritime transports will include uranium hexafluoride through to finished fuel rods, radioactive waste, and irradiated nuclear fuel (INF).
High level waste (HLW) and INF cargo will travel out of the region. HLW, intermediate level waste, and low level waste will require storage in the Emirates – presenting major terrestrial and maritime target potential, whether directly intended or un-intentional.
Incidents involving nuclear transport ships can include collision, ramming, grounding, fire and explosion, foundering, equipment and material failure, and as a result of hostile action. Such incidents can occur in ports and approaches and at sea.
The very high forces during collision or ramming events may be sufficient to breach nuclear waste flask containment and, if followed by fire, the sustained temperatures involved could result in a significant airborne release of radioactivity, with the fire plume simultaneously providing an efficient dispersal mechanism by which a very significant radioactive release could be delivered directly to a human population.
So why has UAE cast significant resources at nuclear power, a quintessentially late-twentieth-century technology, when other more efficient, less risky, technically and economically viable options already exist?
Since new nuclear makes little apparent sense in the Gulf, which has some of the best solar energy resources in the world, the nature of the interest in nuclear may lie hidden in plain sight.
That being so, it seems reasonable to suggest that nuclear suppliers should commit not to supply the UAE enrichment or reprocessing capabilities. Correspondingly, it may prove wise for intelligence capabilities to monitor any UAE efforts to draw back on its commitment not to acquire advanced fuel cycle capabilities, and look for signs as to whether the Emirates may be carrying out research on weaponisation.
But the key paradox for the Emirates, and other nuclear states, is this. Due to risk of deliberate or accidental harm to their own nuclear facilities, the boundaries of their own safety are being pushed beyond the limits of logic.
Dr Paul Dorfman is honorary senior research associate at the UCL Energy Institute, University College London; founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group; and member of the Irish Govt. Environment Protection Agency Radiation Protection Advisory Committee.