Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nuclear matters

Original Article

By the end of the next decade, the UAE will join the ranks
of nations generating nuclear power for peaceful purposes.
Illustrative picture of nuclear power plant cooling towers.

Abu Dhabi: By the end of the next decade, the UAE will join the ranks of nations generating nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Already, tentative plans are in place to meet the economy’s surging power need by building three reactors, two of which will likely be located on the coast between Abu Dhabi and Ruwais. The move will require a quantum leap in planning

The UAE will cut its dependence on natural gas and oil for electricity generation by 2020, and turn instead to nuclear fuel and renewable energy to meet the increasing power needs of a fast-expanding economy, industry experts say.

"Over the next 12 years, roughly 50 per cent of the power plants in the country will be gas-fired, while 30 per cent of electricity generation will be by nuclear power plants," Khalid Malallah Al Awadi, a UAE energy expert, told Gulf News. "About 15 per cent of the electricity will be generated using coal and liquid fuels as feedstock. The remaining 5 per cent will be generated at the wind farms and by using solar energy."

Of the UAE's current capacity of about 18,000 megawatts (MW), almost 85 per cent of the power generated is gas-based, while the other plants are oil-fired. Nearly all of Abu Dhabi and Dubai's electricity comes from gas-based stations.

Latest analysis shows that national annual peak demand for electricity is likely to be 40,858MW by 2020, up 162.82 per cent from present, based on an annual growth rate of about 9 per cent from 2007 onwards.

As much as $12 billion has been committed in total for the next five years for building new generating capacity and desalination plants in the UAE, say experts. That figure does not include any provision for nuclear reactors.

"The UAE will always maintain a higher electricity generation capacity than the physical demand, up to 15 per cent higher," Al Awadi said. "The plan is to cut the firing of power plants by expensive oil and maximise the use of gas as a feedstock for electricity generation."

Preferred option

He added that while coal will be an alternative fuel for the short-term, nuclear fuel will be the preferred option in the longer term because it's cleaner, cheaper and a safer energy source.

"By 2020, at least three nuclear power plants should be up and running in the country, with a minimum capacity of 1,500MW for each," Al Awadi said.

Each nuclear plant will cost an estimated $7 billion to build, although this initial high outlay will be offset by inexpensive electricity generation. Power from fully operational nuclear plants is four times cheaper than gas-based generation.

"Nuclear power plants use fuel rods containing enriched uranium to generate electricity, which do not generate much waste," Al Awadi said. "These wastes can easily be managed."

He said hazardous nuclear waste is generated only while enriching uranium, which is not what the UAE's aim is, and he added that the government has made it clear that it would import enriched uranium for any reactor it builds.

Al Awadi recommended that the UAE Government should enter into power-purchase contracts with nuclear power generating companies from the US, France, Russia and Japan, who should then be allowed to build and operate nuclear power plants within the country.

"These companies can have their branch in the UAE on a franchise-basis," he said. "This will help speed up the process of integrating nuclear energy into the UAE's energy system."

The UAE nominated Hamad Al Ka'abi as its ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier this year as part of its declared intention to launch a nuclear programme for power generation. Abu Dhabi has inked nuclear energy cooperation agreements with both the United States and France.

"Nuclear power-generation emerged as a proven, environmentally-promising and commercially competitive option, which could make a significant base-load contribution to the UAE's economy and future energy security," notes the policy of the UAE on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy, a copy of which was obtained by Gulf News.

The report says that while the evaluation of coal-fired power generation established its lower relative price compared to liquids-fired power generation, its widespread use within the UAE would have a severe detrimental effect on the environment, while also raising thorny issues related to security of supply.

"It is on the basis of this analysis that the UAE is establishing a Nuclear Energy Programme Implementation Organisation, as recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and is proceeding to evaluate the establishment of a peaceful nuclear programme that would make the potential benefits of nuclear power available to the people of UAE," the document says.

It also notes that the UAE will draft a comprehensive national nuclear law, which will provide legal authority for the establishment of a fully independent nuclear regulatory authority - an institution critical to safeguard and sustain operational transparency in any nuclear-energy sector.

"As an additional mechanism to secure transparency in the day-to-day operation of any future nuclear power plants, the UAE would offer joint venture arrangements to foreign investors for the construction and operation of future nuclear power plants," the document says. "The involvement of experienced and reputable foreign commercial partners in the construction and operation of any eventual nuclear plants would provide a continuous and fully transparent window into the UAE nuclear sector and make it virtually impossible for any party to misconstrue or misinterpret the UAE's nuclear activities."

The document goes on to say that "should the UAE opt to deploy nuclear power plants, it will only consider partnerships with companies having a history of transparent operations and a reputation for excellence in safety, and whose national governments are parties to the treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and have negotiated and implemented safeguard agreement as required by the treaty."

The document also notes that the government is aware of health, safety and the environmental concerns raised over a nuclear option.

British media have reported that the UAE is planning to build up to 14 nuclear power plants at a cost of £40 billion ($79 billion) in a bid to satisfy growing demand for electricity. Nine engineering firms have already been pre-qualified to oversee the project, including Britain's Amec. The reports also noted CH2M Hill, Bechtel and Fluor Corp might be also on the list of contenders. An appointment is expected to be made by the end of the summer, and the UAE has appointed Thorium Power as a key advisor for its proposed nuclear programme, according to the reports.

Dalton Garis, associate professor of Economics at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, said that efficient countries look at total cost alternatives, over time. "Nuclear power is one alternative that should be studied," he said.

Current nuclear technologies require easy access to large bodies of water for production processes, cooling and venting mechanisms, and easy shipping access for both nuclear fuel and spent nuclear rods.

Potential site

While no sites have yet been identified for building the UAE's nuclear power plants, Al Awadi said a potential site could be the long shoreline between Abu Dhabi and Ruwais.

"Two nuclear power plants could be built here, 50 kilometres apart," he said. As well, there's room to put one up in Fujairah.

Separately, while renewable sources of energy will help supplement the UAE's energy needs, they cannot be entirely depended upon because of their limitations.

The UAE Government document says "evaluation of alternative energies, including solar and wind, suggested that, while these options could be deployed within the UAE, even aggressive development could only supply 6-7 per cent of peak electricity demand by 2020."

A step towards developing alternative energy sources in the country is the Abu Dhabi Government's $15 billion Masdar Initiative. Masdar will help maximise the benefits of sustainable technologies such as photovoltaic cells and concentrated solar power. By implementing these technologies, Masdar City, located on the outskirts of the Abu Dhabi city, expects to save the equivalent of more than $2 billion in oil over the next 25 years, based on today's energy prices.

Masdar's chief executive Dr Sultan Ahmad Al Jaber has said Masdar is planning the world's largest hydrogen power plant, which will provide 500MW of clean power.

Primer: The real deal

What is nuclear energy?

- Nuclear energy is generated by the splitting (fission) or merging together (fusion) of the nuclei of atoms.

- Nuclear power is any nuclear technology designed to extract usable energy from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions using fission. Nuclear fusion has yet to be achieved.

- Today, more than 15 per cent of the world's electricity comes from nuclear power, with the United States, Russia, France, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom being the main users. Commercial nuclear plants also operate in Romania, China and South Korea.

What's the UAE government's stance on nuclear energy

The government has prepared and formally endorses the following policy statement as a reflection of its views on the potential establishment of a peaceful civilian nuclear energy programme in the UAE.

1. The UAE is committed to complete operational transparency.

2. The country is committed to pursuing the highest standards of non-proliferation.

3. The UAE is committed to the highest standards of safety and security.

4. The Emirates will work directly with the International Atomic Energy Agency and conform to its standards in evaluating and potentially establishing a peaceful nuclear energy programme.

5. The UAE hopes to develop any peaceful domestic nuclear power capability in partnership with the governments and firms of responsible nations, as well with the assistance of appropriate expert organisations.

6. The country will approach any peaceful domestic nuclear power programme in a manner that best ensures long-term sustainability.

Source: Policy of the UAE on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy, industry sources.

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