United Nuclear Emirates

9 May 2011

How long does it take to develop a robust nuclear safety culture? The early history of commercial nuclear power complicates the answer to this question since early reactors were used mainly, or exclusively, for nuclear weapons material; that work was more closely aligned with the culture and values of the space programme, for example, or a munitions factory, than an electrical utility. Military secrecy would probably have tended to prevent contact with other plants in the country, much less plants in foreign countries.

Slowly, after the test reactors, the research reactors, the prototype reactors, the demonstration reactors, and the plutonium-generating reactors were built, the first modest electricity-generating units were built in the USA, the UK and Russia. With those units grew industries of suppliers. By perhaps the mid-1970s, 30 years after the Fermi pile went critical, large domestic nuclear industries had taken shape. But improvements in load factor and reductions in worker dose have taken another 30.

The United Arab Emirates is looking to short-circuit all of that. Of course, it is developing the required laws and regulations to make sure that corrupt buyers do not siphon off a little extra uranium for their own profit, for example. But it has bought a foreign reactor to be built and operated by foreign staff, and has set up contracts with foreign firms and foreign nationals to populate and prop up its nuclear developer, ENEC, and regulator, FANR—at least to start with. Surely, one might conclude, you can’t make a nice garden by laying rolls of pre-grown turf over bare ground.

This comparison neglects the UAE’s recent history, particularly since oil was discovered in the 1960s. The megabucks business of oil exploration and extraction has promoted a professional culture, if only to protect the value of its own assets. Today, petro contractors have to work to high international levels of environment, health and safety standards.

I had personal experience of this in my previous job as editor of the magazine Cranes Today. During the several years I spent helping organise a Dubai-based conference, I met leading contractors and equipment suppliers to both commercial construction and oil and gas. I saw for myself the vast divide between a poor attitude to the safety of migrant workers among some local builders, and that of the sophisticated international contractors.

“Nuclear power has followed oil and gas in becoming international. Major vendors are scattered across the Americas, Europe and Asia, and utilities around the world routinely share expertise and lessons learned in safety practices.

I believe that the UAE can apply this expertise to its new nuclear build plans. No, the UAE does not have a preexisting nuclear programme; but it is possible to import foreign technology, and make a real success of it. Take the example of South Korea, which imported Westinghouse reactors for its early reactors, Kori 1-4 and Yonggwang 1&2, starting in the 1970s.

Since then, as privatised nuclear operators have reinvented the business, nuclear power has followed oil and gas in becoming international. Major vendors are scattered across the Americas, Europe and Asia, and utilities around the world routinely share expertise and lessons learned in safety practices.

Also, the UAE seems to be well set up for nuclear power. It is rich. It has a strong, centralised government. It knows how to buy big projects. It has an international business culture that aims to draw the best people from leading countries around the world.

But the UAE’s nuclear developer does also seem to exhibit a familiar regional trait that is less desirable: a culture of secrecy. I have had little experience with the UAE nuclear law‘s pledge for ‘complete operational transparency.’ Suppliers are contractually prohibited from discussing their work. Their requests to write articles are denied. Leaks are punished. My own requests for information of ENEC, at several levels, have also been refused, so far.

Ultimately, however, it is this nuclear newcomer who has the most to lose by cutting off the information flow required for a rich international collaboration.

Author Info:

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International

FilesReactor-by-reactor, system-by-system summary from JAIF as of 10 May
Fukushima Daiichi parameters as of 9 May

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