United Arab Emirates: Developing Safe And Peaceful Nuclear Energy In The UAE: A Model For GCC Countries

Last Updated: 3 January 2012
Article by Lady Elizabeth Riesenburg

The UAE: Humble Beginnings

Since the founding of the Federation 40 years ago, the UAE has become a thriving economy, with world class infrastructure, a unique sprawling urban landscape, and a world renowned business hub attracting investment from across the globe. For this, the UAE is grateful to its visionary leaders. Continuous efforts and devotion to the betterment of the nation's quality of life and growth have shaped the UAE into a global powerhouse. One of the challenges arising from this journey is growth and sustainability, the sustainability of the current and future vision for the federation as a whole.  In order to meet fast growing demand for electricity, which is anticipated to rise to more than 40,000 MWe by 2020, the UAE has proactively recognised the need for the diversification of its infrastructure portfolio through, amongst other things, the development of eco-friendly power plants. It is for this reason that we are today witness to history in the making, with the UAE having committed to constructing its very first nuclear power plant. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), an Abu Dhabi government owned company initially funded with $100 million has been charged with planning the construction, operation and maintenance of a nuclear power plant of 5600 MWe, consisting of four units each with a reactor APR-1400, which shall be built at the Braka site, approximately 300km west of Abu Dhabi.

Nuclear Energy in the UAE  

The UAE government undertook extensive evaluations into the suitability of the envisaged nuclear units. It is widely known that nuclear electrical energy production proves sustainable and more powerful in generating higher quantities of electricity in an environmentally friendly manner due to the reduction of emissions such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and polluting solid waste, than other types of power plant. Take for instance a coal fired or crude-oil fired power plant, running at higher long-term costs and requiring high quantities of fossil fuels to produce comparable amounts of energy. Even the aggressive use of solar and/or wind plants would not meet the UAE's energy demands. These methods produce lower generation capacity due to key constraints on the continuous availability of energy to the grid. The UAE Government has therefore chosen the most efficient, reliable and commercially viable form of electricity production for long term sustainability, in order to meet fast growing energy demands.

The UAE Framework

The UAE has developed a framework consisting of the UAE's Nuclear Policy (Policy of the UAE on the Evaluation and potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy), the UAE's Nuclear Program (Nuclear Energy Program Implementation Organisation), a legal framework on Nuclear Laws, the National Independent Regulatory Body (FANR), and the UAE's collaboration with national and international entities, principally the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).

Publically released in 2008 by the UAE government, the UAE Nuclear Policy formed the foundation for the UAE's current framework for nuclear energy projects on-land.  Three years following its release, various developments and actions have already been implemented by the UAE authorities, at a remarkable pace, in compliance with the spirit of the Nuclear Policy, international standards and recommendations.

The Nuclear Policy contains criteria setting very high standards for safety, non-proliferation, security, the establishment of a comprehensive legal framework, and the establishment of FANR. The seeds for strong cooperation between FANR and IAEA and other national and international entities are already sown. 

The foundations of the Nuclear Policy lead to a carefully designed Nuclear Energy Program compliant with international standards, whereby the UAE has committed to full transparency regarding all aspects of its nuclear energy projects. The Nuclear Energy Program was achieved through the following actions taken by the UAE government on an international level, namely:

  • April 2009 - The UAE signed the Additional Protocol with the IAEA agreeing to stringent inspections (both announced and unannounced) of the nuclear facilities and operations at the Braka site. It has been announced recently that IAEA intends to undertake these inspections in the very near future.  
  • October 2009 - The UAE gained accession to the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS); thus committing to integrate CNS's rules and recommendations on high-level international safety standards for the purpose of operating the Braka nuclear facilities. This includes ENEC's compliance with specific obligations under CNS' rules relating to the Braka site, including the plant's design, construction, operation, quality assurance, assessment and verification of safety and emergency preparedness. In addition, ENEC is obliged to show appropriate financing for the development and operation of the Braka plant during its term and comply with stringent requirements for qualified experts in charge of operating the plant in accordance with the terms of IAEA's "Fundamental Safety Principles (SF-1)". In April 2011, the UAE submitted and presented to the CNS Committee in Vienna its first CNS compliance report, known as the "1st National Report on Measures Taken by the UAE to Implement the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS)" for the 5th CNS Review Meeting.    

Nuclear law in the UAE

The UAE has taken tremendous steps in implementing a legal framework in compliance with CNS' requirements and the highest international standards. 

As envisaged in 2008 by the Nuclear Policy, Federal Law No.6 of 2009 Concerning the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy ('the Nuclear Law') was enacted; incorporating in detail CNS' rules and regulations promoting safe and peaceful nuclear energy activities in the UAE.

The following Federal Laws are rudimentary and not to be understated:

  • Law No.14 of 2007 concerning the Establishment of the Critical National Infrastructure Authority, which came into force on 27/05/2007
  • Federal Law No.24 of 1999 for the Protection and Development of the Environment issued on 17/10/99
  • Law No.21 of 2009 establishing the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (CENEC) issued on 20/12/2009

A number of multilateral instruments have also been ratified and bilateral cooperation agreements entered into by the UAE Multi-lateral cabinet as follows:

  • 2 October 1987 - the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident, and the Convention on the Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency
  • 16 October 2003 -  the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material INFCIRC/274
  • 31 July 2009 - the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management

The UAE has entered into the following Bilateral Cooperation Agreements:

  • 15 January 2008 – UAE and France Cooperation Agreement on the Development of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy
  • 15 May 2009 – UAE and United Kingdom (MOU) Concerning Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy
  • 27 June 2009 - UAE and Republic of Korea Agreement for Cooperation In the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy
  • 17 December 2009 – UAE and United States Cooperation Agreement Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy

These steps are a clear testament to the UAE's serious commitment to the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy.   

  The UAE's Governmental Framework

The Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR)

Article 4 of the Nuclear Law establishes FANR, a separate and independent national regulatory authority, with headquarters in Abu Dhabi holding full legal capacity to perform its functions and exercise the duty "to regulate and develop the Nuclear Sector in the State toward peaceful purposes only and to ensure Safety, Nuclear Security and Radiation Protection" pursuant to Article 4(2) of the Nuclear Law. In carrying out its functions, FANR ensures the implementation of international treaties and conventions entered into by the UAE on nuclear peace and safety.

On a national level, FANR's board has the power to issue bylaws, implement regulations and decisions relating to the Braka Plant with the purpose to "protect individuals, society and environment from radiation hazards, both the present and in the future". In pursuance with Article 11 of the Nuclear Law, FANR may issue regulations without limitation on nuclear safety and security and in this regard, FANR has been instrumental in issuing a series of regulations ranging from licensing processes, site location, design, construction,  management safety systems, radiation dose limits and operation of radiation protection, application of probabilistic risk assessment on the physical protection for nuclear material, transportation and storage facilities, safeguard accounting and control, radioactive waste management and emergency preparedness, many of which have already been approved and others are in the process of being formalised. 

FANR also strictly controls the import and export of nuclear materials and the physical protection of nuclear materials, waste management and transportation systems.  In performing these functions FANR co-operates with other national governmental entities and works closely with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

As the competent national regulatory authority, FANR is solely responsible for regulating the licensing of nuclear facilities, which involves considering applications for licenses to construct and operate nuclear facilities as well as other related licenses. The power to grant, revoke and/or alter licences/sub-licences rests firmly with FANR and is entrenched in Article 6 of the Nuclear Law. 

In addition, FANR has broad powers relating to consultation, inspection, supervision, and ensuring compliance with safety measures. For instance FANR may scrutinise, assess and review submissions on safety from operators prior to and post granting a license, ensuring full transparency and that highly qualified experts are operating the nuclear facilities and that quality assurance principles on all procedures are complied with relating to the operation of the Braka plant.  

Although established by the Nuclear Law, the FANR Committee and its members are entirely independent of the UAE government. In accordance with Article 10 of the Nuclear Law, FANR's committee is appointed by resolution of the UAE Cabinet for a period of three years renewable for the same period. This separation is necessary to enable members to carry out their duties to the "highest standards of transparency" and independence in satisfaction of Article 9 of the Nuclear Law. 

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Underlining the UAE's commitments with the IAEA is the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements between the UAE and the IAEA, adopted in 2003, and the Protocol Additional to the Agreement between the UAE and the IAEA for the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 2009. 

Formed in 1957, the IAEA is an independent inter-governmental, science and technology-based organisation which is part of the United Nations (UN), reporting annually on its activities to the General Assembly of the UN. Should issues arise on the maintenance of international peace and security, the IAEA reports directly to the Security Council or to the Economic and Social Council and/or other organs of the UN, as appropriate. 

In essence the IAEA is the ultimate international authority promoting and regulating safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear technology at an 'a-national level'. To date 152 member states subscribe to the IAEA and its statutes. 

Nuclear safety, verification and security and technology transfer to its member states from the three pillars of the agency as underlined by IAEA Statutes. In this respect, the IAEA assists its member states in their use of nuclear science for peaceful purposes in the use of electricity production and transfers knowledge and technology to developing member states by ensuring high levels of safety in the application of nuclear energy, with the purpose to protect human health and the environment against ionizing radiation.  If requested to do so, the IAEA may act as an intermediary to secure the performance of services such as the supply of materials, equipment or facilities between member states dealing with any practical application of nuclear energy in the generation of electricity.     

Additionally, the IAEA carries out detailed inspections to verify member state compliance with their commitments under the Non-proliferation Treaty and other non-proliferation agreements.  

World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO)

WANO is not a regulatory body, it is a non-profit organisation, which was formed in May 1989, three years after the world witnessed the worst nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union. The RMBK-100 reactor released the most severe levels of radiation seen to date due to insufficient management control, design problems, inappropriate use of safety procedures and human error amongst other factors.

WANO is governed by a board of international experts in the field, with its headquarters in London and regional centers in Moscow, Paris, Tokyo and Atlanta. WANO unites operators, companies and countries worldwide operating nuclear power plants to ensure the prevention of nuclear accidents and that the highest levels of nuclear safety, operational safety and reliability are achieved. This is accomplished through peer reviews, data sharing, technical support and access to a global library of operators for its members. As a member of WANO, ENEC has committed to achieving the highest standards of safety and reliability in adhering to the fundamental values of leadership, integrity, transparency, trust, relationships and accountability on a national and global level.

International Advisory Board (IAB)

The UAE established an exceptionally highly qualified and experienced IAB consisting of independent international experts chaired by Dr. Hans Blix, former IAEA General Director. IAB experts offer guidance and ensure that the Nuclear Energy Program complies with the highest international safety, security and non-proliferation standards. The IAB reports its findings and recommendations and meets twice a year. 

Other National Governmental Bodies

A number of other key national governmental bodies work in collaboration with FANR, and include:

  • The Executive Affaires Authority (EEA) based in Abu Dhabi. The EEA is tasked with implementing the Nuclear Energy Program, which involves closely monitoring the development of the Nuclear Regulator and the Operator. The EEA drafted a detailed paper; the "Roadmap to Success" dealing with relevant legislation, capacity building and radioactive management matters amongst others. 
  • The Environmental Agency (EAD), also based in Abu Dhabi, is a governmental agency with the authority to regulate the Construction Environmental Permit (CEP), to be considered in the construction and operation of a civil nuclear plant. In this respect, EAD assists FANR in considering the Terms of Reference, Environmental Assessment Impact, and the Construction Environmental Management Plan.
  • The Critical National Infrastructure Authority (CNIA), in Abu Dhabi, is responsible for assessing and developing security measures for important installations relating to desalinisation plants, onshore and offshore petroleum facilities, gas transportation and distribution networks and all power generation installations related to the Braka Power Plant. 

The UAE's drive for peaceful nuclear energy

Article 7 of the Convention on Nuclear Safety imposes a duty on each contracting party to the Convention to "establish and maintain a legislative and regulatory framework to govern the safety of nuclear installations", which includes the incorporation and formation of a system for licensing of nuclear activity, licensing, inspection and assessment of nuclear installations to complete with licensing requirements and the enforcement of licensing regulations (granting of license, suspension, modification or revocation). 

Regulated Activities and Licensing

FANR issued regulation REG-06 'Applications to Construct a Nuclear Facility', which establishes the requirements for an application to be lodged with FANR for the licensing of nuclear facilities or for any regulated activities under the Nuclear Law.  

Key licensing requirements include:

  • Licence for the preparation of the site 
  • Limited licence for the construction of a nuclear power plant
  • Licence to operate a nuclear facility
  • License for loading fuel (uranium) and license to operate each unit of the nuclear facility collectively (fuel loading and operational licenses).

The licensing process is ambitious and rigorous, as identified in the Braka case study below.

The Braka Case Study

ENEC must satisfy the terms of FANR REG-06, and provide a number of assurances including, but not limited to the following:

  • Corporate Personality – Under Article 3 and 4, ENEC is required to provide a description of its legal entity, the overall ownership and management structure including its directors, officers and their respective function.  In addition, ENEC is to produce its projected financial and human resource requirements for the proposed nuclear facilities, to include the financial and technical qualifications to complete the proposed activities in accordance with applicable law and regulations. 
  • Regulated Activity - ENEC is also to present the proposed activities, demonstrating that the "proposed Nuclear Facility will be Designed and Constructed in compliance with the applicable laws of the State" and FANR's regulations, describing "the purpose for which ENEC desires to Construct the Nuclear Facility" and the requested term for the construction license. 
  • Execution Plan - Additionally, ENEC is to describe its relationship with major contractors and the structure of responsibilities between ENEC and any contractors responsible for the site, design, construction and operation of the nuclear facilities, as well as "the anticipated Construction commencement and completion dates and a schedule outlining the major Construction phases and milestones".  
  • Preliminary Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) - Article 5 of FANR REG-06 imposes the obligation upon ENEC to lodge a PSAR addressing all safety matters for FANR's consideration. In this regard, ENEC is to describe all measures to secure, manage, maintain and enhance a strong safety culture at all times including the protection of the nuclear facilities against internal and external events. Internal events include reactor core damage, containment failure, internal radioactivity release, offsite radioactivity release, or a major accident known as Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA). External events may consist of an earthquake, tsunami, fire, flood, tornado, hurricane or the impact of a fully loaded passenger airliner or any other flying object. In describing its safety management system, ENEC shall deal with the emergency planning and accident management systems  The emergency plan is also required to cover the construction phase, taking into consideration fire, flooding, sand storms and security violations. 
  • Design specifications - Article 6 of FANR REG-06 outlines a series of stringent requirements for the content of the PSAR, which includes, without limitation, ENEC providing a general description of the proposed nuclear facilities including its basic technical characteristics, its layout, a description of the operating modes of the units together with a comparison of other similar nuclear facilities in operation elsewhere. In addition, ENEC is to submit an Independent Safety Verification (ISV) describing any changes to the design.
  • Environmental Impact Analysis - ENEC is to provide the radiological and non-radiological impacts of the proposed nuclear facilities during the operation and monitoring of site related parameters. In providing the description and evaluation of the Braka site, specific hazards such as, the proximity of industrial or military activities or others which may influence the safety of the facility are considered, as well as the vital information supplied on the hydrology, meteorology, seismology and radiological conditions of the Braka site and its surroundings. This site evaluation process including its seismology radiological conditions is crucial in order to avoid any potential external events as witnessed with the Fukushima site, which ENEC closely considered in selecting its chosen Braka site. 
  • Inspection and Testing - civil engineering works and inspection and testing of the system to ensure compliance with the design objectives are required to address the safety aspects of the design of the nuclear facilities. ENEC is to include the applicable time frames to review the PSAR during the testing and verification period in order to accommodate modifications in the design, if required.
  • Operation and Maintenance - preliminary information on all safety aspects is required including particulars of the radiation protection programme and the pre-disposal management of radioactive waste, which is to include measures to protect the workers, the nation, and the environment in the event of a nuclear or radiological emergency. This process includes the control and accountability of all nuclear material and/or nuclear waste and related equipment, storage and management. In addition, ENEC is to provide a protection plan for unauthorised access, together with a commissioning programme to be adopted during the testing and verification stages, thus ensuring compliance with the design safety requirements in building the nuclear facilities. An explanation is also required by ENEC on ways that the design shall sustain the decommissioning process when the nuclear facility reaches the end of its term. 

As evidenced by the stringency of the licensing application regime, the UAE has gone to great lengths in selecting the Braka site and in implementing the highest safety measures in order to prevent potential internal and/or external nuclear incidents as witnessed in Chernobyl or Fukushima. Outstanding resources and extensive investment by the UAE in implementing a framework that meets the highest safety standards and is compliant with the highest international standards and in ensuring continuous compliance with the same, places the UAE at the forefront and as a trend setter in the development of socially responsible nuclear energy technology. For this, the UAE should be commended and serve as a model to other GCC and non-nuclear countries looking to develop safe and secure nuclear reactor technology for electricity production sustainability. A job very well done.

www.habibalmulla.com

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