News in Depth: Putting a Face on the Future of Nuclear in the UAE

Over the last few months, our News in Depth series has explored the development of nuclear energy around the world. However, what is admittedly missing in our stories and in many of the stories we link to is that human element: who are the people that are driving the future of nuclear?

In this week’s feature, we focus on the future of UAE’s renewable energy programmes and the story of Marwa Al Shehhi and Omar Al Hashmi, Emirati students who are studying abroad in the hope of bringing their new nuclear expertise back home to the UAE.

The Students’ Stories and the UAE’s Nuclear Future

In a recent article in UAE’s The National, Caline Malek tells the story of two Emirati students, Marwa Al Shehhi and Omar Al Hashmi, who have travelled to Korea to bolster their nuclear engineering and management skills. Ms. Al Shehhi describes her motivation in the piece by saying that

“nuclear energy is interesting all over the world, and hearing that my country was adopting safe nuclear energy really made me proud. So I wanted to take part in that initiative…”

Ms. Al Shehhi is studying in a two-year masters program at Kings Kepco International Nuclear Graduate School. Mr. Al Hashmi is studying nuclear engineering as part of a bachelors program at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Just like Ms. Al Shehhi, he is also keen on being part of the UAE’s energy transformation,

“I want to make my country proud and try to advance nuclear studies in the UAE. We’re trying to reduce our carbon emissions and this is one of the best ways to do it.”

These two students, along with their peers, appear eager to leverage their foreign education to gain professional experience at home and abroad. For example, another student mentioned in the piece plans to intern with Korea Electric Power Corporation before joining the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC).

ENEC was establisehd by the UAE government on recommendation by the IAEA, as the country embarked on the development of nuclear energy production in the last decade. According the World Nuclear Association’s country profile, 98% of of the UAE’s 101 billion kWh energy production was from oil in 2012. In response to this continued reliance on fossil fuels, the country has accepted a $20 billion bid from a South Korean consortium to build four commercial reactors that are expected to produce 5.6 GWe by 2020 at Barakah, a coastal site 300 km west of Abu Dhabi city.

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Image credit: The National

The Educational Story in a Broader Context

With construction at the Barakah site progressing on time and on budget it appears that these students have a bright future ahead of them. However, this story also illustrates the complex interaction between foreign suppliers and the countries involved in nuclear development. It is clear that Korea and Korean companies have a vested interest in building not only reactors abroad, but universities at home that train Korean and foreign students alike. At the same time, countries that have little existing commercial, engineering, or educational infrastructure must look abroad to train students in new technologies such as nuclear.

As a result, the flow of knowledge follows the flow of capital around the world. In the nuclear energy sector in particular, it is important that local people, who will help maintain and operate the facilities long after the initial construction managed by foreign suppliers, have the know-how and skills to safely operate the site.

It starts, then, with education and training, with people like Ms. Al Shehhi and Mr. Al Hashmi. They are the future of nuclear for the UAE.

The Future of Nuclear Power and The Long View

Below is a comment from Future of NuclearChair Henry Vehovec on his opening remarks and in response to post-event press coverage:

“The day after Wednesday’s Future of Nuclear 2013 Conference in Toronto the Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Province of Ontario announced that new build nuclear reactors would not be pursued at this time. Articles in the press cited pricing pressure from cheap shale gas, a decline in energy demand, and increased resistance to nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world as reasons for the decision. Although there has been a recent decline in nuclear power in the global energy mix it would be premature to dismiss nuclear in the longer term.

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

The global mix of major energy sources evolves over decades and plays out in time frames of a century or more. The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, however, it wasn’t until the development of the Model-T Ford fifty years later that oil truly took off as a major global energy source. Similarly, civilian nuclear energy started about fifty years ago and the industry now needs game changing innovation if it is to compete with shale gas and address concerns of radioactive waste, safety and proliferation.

Are there any such game changing innovations on the horizon? At the Future of Nuclear Conference we heard about several nuclear technologies that hold the paradigm shifting potential to compete with shale gas.  New nuclear technologies that are on the drawing board can burn spent fuel, are incapable of meltdown, and do not produce fissile material. We heard about fusion from General Fusion, thorium and molten salt reactors (MSR) from Terrestrial Energy, small modular reactors (SMR) from Babcock and Wilcox, portable reactors, travelling reactors, floating reactors and more. These technologies have attracted investors such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. The only problem with most of these technologies is that they require at least a decade to develop and would cost several billion dollars to produce their first prototype let alone a commercially available product. In this era of short term pressures for quarterly results in business and governments that rarely think beyond the horizon of a 4-year election term it is difficult to find jurisdictions that plan decades into the future as is required when considering energy infrastructure.

China, India, Russia and UAE are examples of countries that are taking an appropriate long view to energy planning. Not coincidentally, these are also among the countries that are proceeding aggressively with their plans to build nuclear power capabilities. China alone has 29 reactors currently under construction. Although some jurisdictions in the west do not have local demand to support new reactors it would certainly make sense to stay engaged with the industry and act as a supplier to international markets where possible. As a commodity, shale gas will not be cheap and plentiful forever.”

UAE energy chief states his support for nuclear power, two years after Fukushima disaster

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) energy chief Suhail Al Mazrouei recently stated his support for nuclear power, two years after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. [1] Mr. Al Mazrouei urged other nations to join the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety, a set of nuclear policy benchmarks ratified by 76 nations in 1994, with the goal of “harmonizing” civil liability regimes for nuclear damage, allowing energy producers recourse to file claims in the case of an accident while limiting the total financial burden on the operator. [1]

There are many obstacles facing nuclear energy including public concerns about safety, competition from low gas prices in North America, and reduced access to credit to fund expensive reactors.  Some have forecasted that renewable energy sources such as solar and hydro will produce double the amount of electricity generated by nuclear in the coming years. Yet there are 434 nuclear power reactors already in operation, 69 reactors under construction and many more on the drawing board. [1] Despite the ongoing challenges, the development of atomic energy is progressing just fine, says Mr. Al Mazrouei. [1]

“The reality is nuclear is indispensable as part of the global energy mix today,” Hamad Al kaabi, the UAE permanent representative to the IAEA, told The National. [1] The United Arab Emirates will be home to the Arab world’s first civilian reactor in 2017.

Source:

1. Yee, April. UAE Energy chief calls for nuclear consensus. The National, http://www.thenational.ae.