When it comes to safeguarding the wellbeing of planet Earth, fossil fuels are an increasingly controversial energy source. Nuclear is arguably more so, given the experience of Chernobyl and the potential to convert civilian nuclear technology to military uses.
Those risks become even more ominous when a nuclear power plant is introduced into a tinderbox of geopolitical rivalries like the Arabian Peninsula.
But that’s where the region is headed.
This week, the world learned that after years of delays, the United Arab Emirates is set to bring the first of four nuclear reactors in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi online by the end of March.
The UAE’s nuclear power plant is named Barakah – Arabic for “divine blessing”. That is how UAE Minister of State Sultan bin Ahmad Sultan Al Jaber spun it at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week conference, telling reporters earlier this week “we will become the first country in the region to deliver safe, commercial and peaceful nuclear power”.
But some nuclear experts are not so sanguine, and are warning of the potential curse that could be unleashed by Barakah, from a nuclear arms race to environmental catastrophe.
A recent report by Paul Dorfman, chair of the non-profit Nuclear Consulting Group, titled Gulf Nuclear Ambition: New Reactors in the United Arab Emirates, highlights myriad risks inherent in Barakah’s design.
Among the most prominent red flags is the firm that won the contract to build Barakah – Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), which clinched the deal with a bid that was “spectacularly low, about 30% lower than the next cheapest bid,” the report says.
That bargain-basement price was made possible, the report notes, thanks to a lack of “key improved safety design features” normally expected on new European reactors but missing from those built by KEPCO.
Such features include a so-called “core catcher” to prevent the nuclear reactor core from breaching the containment building in the event of a meltdown and other defences to guard against a significant radiation release in the event of an accident or deliberate attack on the facility.
Further compounding these omissions, says the report, is “the discovery of cracking in all 4 reactor containment buildings” and the installation of faulty valves – all of which cast doubt over the UAE’s ability to provide “adequate nuclear regulation”.
The UAE is the only country that has purchased a KEPCO reactor. But if it proves unable to contain radioactive fallout resulting from an accident or attack, this won’t just be a problem for the Emirates.
Radioactive fallout travels, and the UAE’s neighbours are already voicing concerns.
In March, Qatar’s foreign affairs ministry reportedly sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency saying that a radioactive plume from an accidental discharge could reach its capital, Doha, within five to 13 hours – and a radiation leak could devastate the Gulf’s water supply due to the region’s heavy reliance on desalination plants.
Despite the UAE’s insistence that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful, concerns about the potential for proliferation abound given the geopolitical rifts between neighbouring Gulf countries and the recent ratcheting up of tensions in the Middle East.
This month, fears of a military escalation engulfing the Middle East were heightened after the United States assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in an air attack and Tehran retaliated with missile attacks on US airbases in Iraq.
Qatar is currently the subject of an ongoing diplomatic, trade and transport blockade by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt over allegations that Doha supports “terrorism” and is too close to Iran. Qatar has rejected such claims.
In September, a drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities raised serious concerns about the vulnerability of the region’s energy infrastructure to assaults.
“As recent military strikes against Saudi oil refineries infer, nuclear safety revolves around the broader issue of security,” notes Dorfman in his report, “especially since belligerent 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 warnings have not deterred the UAE from pressing ahead and sticking to the script. Abu Dhabi continues to say its nuclear programme is grounded in transparency, safety, security, sustainability and international cooperation.
The region can only hope those principals are enforced as the Arabian Peninsula is pulled across the nuclear threshold.