By JP Casey
The UAE has announced that the first reactor of its under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant is scheduled to come online within “a few months”. The country’s first nuclear plant could address a key energy need in the region, but questions remain as to its usefulness and safety in a geopolitically tense environment.
But behind these grand claims, the project has been dogged by controversy. From macro problems, such as the inherent dangers of building a nuclear reactor in a geopolitically tense region, to specific weaknesses with Barakah, such as the cracking of the cement used to build the facility itself, the project has no shortage of critics. With the UAE eager to continue with the project, its completion appears a matter of when, not if, opening up a series of lessons to learn ahead of new nuclear construction.
However, questions remain about the ultimate suitability of the plant, considering the risks inherent in nuclear and the potential for alternative sources of clean energy in the region. Dr Paul Dorfman, an honorary research associate at UCL and founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, an independent group of academics that aim to assess the risks and merits of nuclear projects, is sceptical about the suitability of Barakah for the UAE.
“So, given the fact – and it is a fact – that nuclear investment generates significant financial losses, one wonders if there are other reasons for Barakah,” he said. “Especially because nuclear energy seems to make limited economic sense for the Gulf States. As desert kingdoms, they have some of the best solar resources in the world, with solar having much, much lower investment and generation costs than nuclear.”
These solar resources are particularly significant considering the relative importance of renewable technology and nuclear power to the UAE’s 2050 climate goals. The nation aims to develop renewables as a primary source of power, and nuclear as a backup, a policy that could positively impact the solar industry, but hamstring the nuclear sector.
“Saudi recently tripled its renewable energy targets, and has successfully tended for large scale projects in wind and solar, with a Saudi-based consortium launching a world record low price of $17 per megawatt hour for a 900 megawatt solar park in Dubai itself,” said Dorfman. “So, worldwide and in the Gulf, the fate of new nuclear is linked to and determined by renewable energy technology rollout.”