The United Arab Emirates has launched its Barakah nuclear power plant, hoping to decrease the country’s dependence on oil.
Rabat – The UAE launched its first nuclear power plant, Barakah, on Saturday, August 1. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) developed the $32-billion project.
The UAE held the ground-breaking ceremony in March 2011, with the plant due to open in 2017. However, start-up was delayed for what officials said were safety requirements. ENEC released a statement coinciding with Saturday’s launch, saying it was committed to the “highest standards of safety and security.”
The UAE hopes that by the time the nuclear power plant is at full operation, it will greatly decrease the country’s dependence on oil. The plant “will provide up to 25% of the UAE’s electricity needs once fully operational and will help prevent the release of 21 million tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to removing 3.2 million cars off the road annually,” says ENEC.
UAE leaders have praised the nuclear power plant as an important symbol of scientific progress for the country.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) serves as the nuclear industry’s main oversight body. In a tweet, the IAEA celebrated the plant’s launch because it had “achieved its first criticality,” meaning Barakah was able to generate a controlled fission chain reaction.
Abu Dhabi’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, tweeted his congratulations, saying the plant’s launch marks a “milestone in the roadmap for sustainable development.”
The plant could prove beneficial not just for the energy needs of the UAE. The recycling of nuclear fuel, as seen in France, has become a new lucrative business in recent times. Modern storage facilities for spent fuel rods could provide a boom for local construction and provide high-paying technical jobs for locals.
In the region, the UAE’s pioneering project could provide inspiration for non-oil producing nations eager to realize energy independence.
However, there are mixed reactions. Launching the nuclear power plant in the UAE raises concerns about the long-term consequences of introducing more nuclear programs to the Middle East, where political tensions are already high.
The pros and cons of nuclear energy
Nuclear energy, such as that from the new UAE power plant, has many benefits. In fact, around 11% of the world’s energy comes from nuclear power.
These plants are able to produce huge amounts of energy using small amounts of fuel. Most importantly, they do so without generating the air or water pollution that results from burning fossil fuels.
As water scarcity becomes a growing concern in the Middle East, nuclear power provides a cost-effective solution. Barakah will be able to provide low-cost energy for seawater desalination, providing the region with much-needed water.
However, a major critique is that while nuclear power may be renewable, it is not sustainable.
As Professor Jason Donev at the University of Calgary explains, “Not everything renewable is sustainable, and in turn, not everything which is sustainable is necessarily renewable.”
Renewable energy resources naturally replenish with time. On the other hand, sustainable energy is energy production that can last for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, renewable and sustainable are not interchangeable terms.
This could prove problematic for nuclear energy down the line, as some critics point out. Nuclear energy is created from uranium, which has to be mined. Meaning, it is not a renewable source of energy.
Some have argued that nuclear energy could be completely renewable if the source of uranium changed from mined ore to seawater, but that technology is not currently in use.
Another concern is the risk of radioactive pollution in the Gulf, which would remain dangerous to humans, plants, and animals for thousands of years.
More than one step towards sustainability
Renewable and sustainable resources are gaining value around the world as the effects of the alternatives are impacting the globe. Morocco, for example, is leading the Arab world in its efforts to invest in renewable power sources such as hydro, wind, and solar.
Along with the nuclear power plant, the UAE is also investing heavily in solar power—an abundant energy source in the Gulf, supporting the country’s efforts to decrease its dependence on oil.
With the UAE investing in both solar and nuclear, the country has become a testing ground to establish which technology could become the dominant source of energy in a more sustainable future.
Some energy experts, however, question the logic of building Barakah in tandem with such efforts. They argue that solar power is cleaner, cheaper, and makes more sense in a region plagued by political tensions.
Multiple countries in the region have expressed an interest in nuclear energy, including Algeria, Kuwait, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Qatar. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are already developing nuclear plants.
In a time of economic hardship compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in the region will be looking for new economic opportunities.
Whether the UAE’s pioneering nuclear power plant project will prove successful in the long term remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. The Emirati project will be observed closely as the Middle East attempts to move into a new era of cleaner energy and better jobs for its young, eager population.