With the mission to provide one quarter of all energy needs, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first nuclear power plant is an ambitious project with widespread repercussions for the Middle East. Situated on the Gulf coast, east of Qatar, the Barakah plant is both an exciting milestone for sustainable energy and a nuclear threat due to its ability to serve as a political weapon. While it provides new momentum for the country to move away from its oil reliance, it also fuels political ambiguity – sparking fear for international onlookers.
Developed as a collaboration between Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) and Emirates Nuclear Energy (ENEC), the 5.6GW project totals $32bn. The project has been funded through a $16.2bn direct loan from the Abu Dhabi Government along with a $2.5bn loan facility from the Export-Import Bank of Korea (KEXIM). The initial 2017 open date for the plant’s four nuclear reactors was postponed indefinitely due to the detection of cracks in the reactor containment building for the third reactor. This discovery was reported was reported by Abu Dhabi’s ENEC over a year later – this lack of transparency and communication epitomises various concerns raised by the UAE’s plans. The plant is now undergoing the power ascension testing (PAT) process, gradually setting up the first unit system in order to begin full electricity production. However, the detection of cracks has raised fears of a looming nuclear disaster, with the Three Mile Island Accident of 28th March 1979 and Chernobyl disaster of 26th April 1986 still fresh in the minds of many.
But is nuclear energy really the best route for the UAE?
The plant aims to diversify UAE’s energy economy and reduce its reliance on oil, which has been powering the country and its neighbours for decades making UAE one of the world’s largest fossil fuels producers. Oil constitutes around a third of its GDP and in 2019 made up $50bn of imports. Furthermore, UAE has heavily invested in solar power, which offers copious energy supplies, is cleaner, and more cost efficient than it was when Barakah was first announced in 2009. Conversely, nuclear power generation is becoming increasingly expensive and radioactive pollution poses a great risk for the Gulf; a spillage would take over two years to remove from the environment.
The Middle East is becoming noticeably unstable with an increase in its nuclear programmes. Iran and Israel have established nuclear capabilities, with Iran possessing a uranium enrichment programme currently subject to US sanctions and Israel harbouring a nuclear weapons arsenal. After the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on 3rd January 2020, geopolitical tensions in the Middle East have heightened. Qatar, a regional revival of the UAE, reportedly shunned the Barakah plant as a “flagrant threat to regional peace and environment”. In September 2019, the Yemen-based Houthi rebel group reportedly used seven cruise missiles and eighteen drones to attack Saudi Oil facilities, damaging over half of its oil production despite three layers of missile protection. The Barakah plant has no such protection. Its design by KEPCO has been described as “cheap and cheerful” verging on unsafe, by Paul Dorfman, an honorary senior research fellow at the Energy Institute, University College London and founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group. It also lacks a core catcher, a commonly used precautionary measure in nuclear energy production. With many OPEC powers witnessing these developments, there are genuine concerns of a nuclear arms race or an exploitation of the Barakah plant that is in development.
While stepping in the right direction with sustainable energy, questions remain as to whether Barakah is the most economically, politically, environmentally sensible – and safe – option for the future of the Middle East.