Four nuclear reactors are under construction in United Arab Emirates, called Barakah – Arabic for Divine Blessing. Why have the Emirates invested in new nuclear, will they destabilise the volatile Gulf region, and what are the safety, security, and environmental risks?
The South Korean Korea Electric Power Corporation's (KEPCO) winning bid for the construction of the UAE reactors was spectacularly low, about 30% lower than the next cheapest bid. Although nuclear reactor design has evolved, the cost of key improved safety design features would have made their APR1400 reactor design uncompetitive, so they chose not to include them. Having done so, KEPCO was able to dramatically undercut its competition for the UAE bid, with the Chief Executive of a French nuclear corporation comparing the Korean reactor to 'a car without airbags and seat belts'.
And KEPCO acknowledge their reactor design doesn't contain essential features such as either secondary reactor containment or a 'core-catcher' – both of which are design features expected in all new nuclear reactors in Europe. This is important, because these are safety features designed to defend against significant radiation pollution release in the event of an accidental or deliberate large airplane crash, or military attack. Particularly worrying is the lack of a core-catcher which, in the event of a failure of the emergency reactor core cooling system, would catch the core if it breached the reactor pressure vessel.
And then there's the cracks in the reactor containment buildings. Christer Viktorsson, Director General of the UAE's Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation admitted that cracks in the reactor containment building for No. 3 reactor were discovered at Barakah in 2017. In October 2018, Abu Dhabi's Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) acknowledged concrete cracking in the containment buildings of two of the four reactors at Barakah. Subsequent examination was conducted on the containment buildings for the Nos. 1, 2, and 4 reactors, and cracks were found in all of them. Not only that, but the reactor's Pilot Operated Safety Relief Valve (POSRV) leaks. The POSRV is designed to protect the pressurizer against overpressure – but in the UAE APR1400 reactor, when the valve is opened, cooling water has leaked during start-up. These giant valves should be redesigned and replaced ahead of reactor operation at Barakah – but they haven't.
The Gulf region faces unique challenges. The tense geopolitical environment makes nuclear an even more controversial issue in the region than elsewhere, because Gulf states are concerned that neighbours might use their civilian nuclear programs for military ends. And they have a point. Unless uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies are tightly regulated against diversion of civil materials for military purposes, the fact is that new nuclear power plants provide the cover to develop and make nuclear weapons. Whether that capability is turned into actual weapons depends largely on political inclination, and Saudi officials have made it clear on more than one occasion that there is another reason for their interest in nuclear energy technology which was not captured by the royal decree on the Saudi nuclear program – the relationship of the civil program to nuclear weapon production.
There's a very real possibility that the Emirates will follow suit and 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. Here, it's unsettling to reflect that up to 30% of the Barakah APR1400 reactor cores can be loaded with MOX fuel with minor modifications.
As recent military strikes against Saudi oil refineries confirm, nuclear safety involves the broader issue of security ‒ especially since some armed groups may view UAE military operations as a reason to target their nuclear installations, or intercept enriched uranium fuel or waste transfers. Perhaps 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 defense 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, as recent events in Saudi indicate.
The sub-compartments of the Arabian Gulf are widely identified as slow-flushing sea areas. Whilst some Gulf surface waters have a flushing time-scale of more than 3 years, surface waters in the southern sector of the Gulf, including Kuwaiti, Saudi, Qatar and UAE sectors, have a longer flushing time of 5+ years. The highly saline and dense bottom waters of the Gulf have a flushing time of circa 6 years. The Gulf is an unusually shallow sea area, and the UAE coastal territorial waters are some of the shallowest areas of the Gulf, with less than 20 metre depth area extending a long way seaward. Thus, both normal operational radioactive discharges and pollution from accidents or incidents at Barakah would remain in the Gulf marine environment for a considerable time period.
Tim Deere-Jones, a marine environment scientist, notes that aqueous radioactive discharges from Barakah nuclear power plant will include a broad cocktail of at least 60 radionuclides, with half-lives ranging from the short to the very long. Liquid discharges won't be steady-state, but will be 'pulsed' with wide fluctuations in intensity and time-scale. Many of the liquid radioactive discharges, including tritium, will be soluble – leading to risk of both radioactive transport and incorporation into mudflats in interstitial water. Since caesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, radionuclide pollution following any accident or incident would comprise a significant pollution threat, particularly in deep sediment, as would strontium-90, which has a half-life of circa 28 years. Plutonium-239, due to its high density and half-life of 24,100 years, would be transported in more complex ways, persisting in deep sediment for millennia.
Deere-Jones points out that the UAE coast is notable for fairly dense areas of both eel grass and mangrove – and coastal lagoon, eel grass and mangrove environments represent a crucial ecosystem, comprising an important nursery and juvenile area for a very large range of Gulf marine life, including those species that support human life. UAE's extensive mangrove habitats grow on and in coastal fine sediments and mudflats. Such sedimentary environments are notable for their ability to sequester a range of pollutants including radioactivity, and it's widely understood that fine sediment deposits act as a 'sink' for the concentrations of such pollutants which increase and concentrate over time.
When suspended in the water column, fine clay organic particles provide material onto which radionuclides can adsorb; leading to both long-range transport through the water column, and eventual re-concentration in deposition and accretion sites distant from the discharge point. During periods of rapid deposition and incorporation, sedimentary adsorbed pollutants may also be sequestered in sedimentary deposits where – isolated from sunlight, oxygen and biological activity – they remain as an un-degraded toxic source to be released if those sediments are disturbed by storm action, tidal surge, and seismic event. Since maritime transport of sea-discharged radionuclides is well understood to extend to many hundreds of miles out from the point-source of the pollution, discharge of radioactive materials from the 4 PWRs at Barakah will inevitably lead to a human dietary dose from sea foods.
Sea-to-land transfer of marine radioactivity – via coastal flooding during storm surges, super tides, and via marine sea spray and aerosols – has been shown to extend at least 10 miles inland from coast lines, and to generate both human inhalation and dietary doses. Therefore any accident involving either a Fukushima type LOCA (loss-of-coolant accident) escape-to-sea of reactor coolant, cooling pond waters or emergency cooling waters; or Chernobyl type wash-out or fall-out of aerial plume material onto sea surface, presents a significant risk – with consequent impact on area-wide fisheries, tourism, and public health.
And then there's the drinking water. The Gulf region is one of the most water-scarce in the world. With few freshwater resources and low rainfall, many Gulf states rely on desalination. The Middle East has 70% of the world's desalination plants – mostly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia leads the world in the production and consumption of desalinated water, with an estimated SR91bn (US$24.3bn) of expansion plans in the pipeline until 2020.
The 250,000 sq km Gulf is more like a salt-water lake than a sea. It's shallow, just 35 metres deep on average, and almost entirely enclosed. The few rivers that feed the Gulf have been dammed or diverted and the regions hot and dry climate results in high rates of evaporation. With groundwater sources either exhausted or non-existent and climate change bringing higher temperatures and less rainfall, Gulf states plan to nearly double the amount of desalination by 2030. Given the clear and present danger of radioactive sea-water pollution following an accident or incident at Barakah, it follows that all Gulf desalination plants and, hence, all Gulf drinking water will be at significantly increased risk.
The International Panel on Climate Change have just reported that extreme sea level events that used to occur once a century will strike every year on many coasts by 2050, whether climate-heating emissions are curbed or not. This means that coastal nuclear power plants, such as Barakah, are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surge, tidal ingress, flooding of reactor and spent fuel stores, and nuclear islanding, which under many climate change scenarios, may well happen quicker than planned for.
Perhaps alarmingly, the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME) point out that coastal reactors, together with radioactive waste stores including spent fuel, may need to be relocated. In this sense, adapting coastal nuclear power, such as Barakah, to climate change may well entail significantly increased expense for decommissioning and radioactive waste storage.
The low-lying nature of the UAE coastal zone emphasises the vulnerability of Barakah to climate change induced sea-level rise. Here, it's important to reflect that assessments of climate change sea level rise, storm surge, flooding, sea water temperature rise, thermal expansion, and increasing salinity in the Gulf proximal to Barakah are, as yet, conspicuous by their absence.
The Gulf and, more specifically, the coastal waters of the UAE already have high sea surface and bottom water temperatures and the trend appears ever upwards. UAE waters are even more susceptible, due to shallow draft and slow flushing times. Gulf marine system exhibits severe oceanographic conditions – notably, the world's highest sea temperature with seasonal maxima between 34°C – 36°C, along with abnormal seasonal fluctuations of about 20°C, and hypersaline seawater. Thus, despite the installation of large heat exchangers and condensers, future global heating induced temperature regimes may contribute to increasingly reduced reactor cooling at Barakah.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The case for nuclear power in the Middle East has never been strong, and market investment in new nuclear has proven to be uneconomic – this holds for all plausible ranges of investment costs, weighted average cost of capital, and wholesale electricity prices. So, the question remains: why has UAE cast significant resources at nuclear power, a quintessentially late 20th century technology, when other more efficient, less risky, technically and economically viable options already exist? Since new nuclear makes little sense in the Gulf, which has some of the best solar energy resources in the world, the answer may lie hidden in plain sight.
More information: See Paul Dorfman's Dec. 2019 report, 'Gulf Nuclear Ambition: New Reactors in United Arab Emirates', https://www.nuclearconsult.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Gulf-Nuclea...
Dr. Paul Dorfman is Honorary Senior Research Associate at the UCL Energy Institute, University College London; Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Nuclear Policy Research Fellow; Founder and Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group: https://www.nuclearconsult.com, @dorfman_p