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Site visit: Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, UAE

by Fatima De La Cerna on Aug 12, 2017

The plant consists of four containment units, each of which houses a nuclear reactor.
The plant consists of four containment units, each of which houses a nuclear reactor.

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Back in 2008, Mohamed Al Hammadi was working diligently in a classroom at the offices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), learning how to develop nuclear technology and infrastructure for the UAE.

 Fast-forward to the present day, less than a decade later, and the GCC state is home to the largest single-site, under-construction nuclear project in the world. Moreover, Al Hammadi is now chief executive officer of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), the developer behind Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant.

“[The project] started in 2008, with a clear mandate to develop a nuclear power plant in the country. Today, it is a great achievement that we are very proud of,” Al Hammadi tells Construction Week.

Located some 53km west of the city of Ruwais, in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi, Barakah boasts four massive dome containment units, each of which houses a Generation III+ APR1400 nuclear reactor. With each reactor capable of generating as much as 1,400MW, the facility will be able to produce up to 5,600MW of energy once fully operational. ENEC expects all four reactors to come online in 2020.

 This output, says Al Hammadi, will be used to meet approximately one quarter of the UAE’s electricity needs, and will supplement other energy sources, making for what he calls a “basket of energies”.

Remarking that the country’s population is witnessing double-digit growth, Al Hammadi stresses that electricity demand will only continue to rise, necessitating a diversification of the UAE’s energy sources.

“There’s a plan to create a dynamic, flexible basket of energies. Nuclear will play a major role in that equation. We’ll still need [natural] gas; we’ll still need renewables. We’ll need all sources of energy because the country continues to grow,” he explains.

Commenting on the UAE’s decision to invest in nuclear energy, he continues: “The good thing about nuclear power is that it is a clean, safe, and reliable source of energy. There are no CO2 emissions. Once all four units are operational, [the UAE] can avoid around 21 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.”

Al Hammadi adds that, from an energy security point of view, each reactor at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant is designed to run uninterrupted on an 18-month fuel cycle, making the facility an excellent source of base-load electricity.

Henry Berry, engineering director at ENEC, elaborates on the reactors’ 18-month cycle, saying: “We call it breaker-to-breaker. When you start a fuel cycle, you get 17 months of operation, plus one month of maintenance or outage. We load fuel once in a cycle and then we operate continuously, generating electricity 24/7. Depending on how well the plant runs, it might be a little less or a little more than 17 months but, generally, we’ll be on an 18-month cycle.”

Noting that each of the reactors has an operational lifespan of 60 years,  Al Hammadi reiterates his point about the UAE’s energy basket.

“Looking at it from an energy-basket point of view, they’re all complementary. Solar gives you good power at peak times; nuclear gives you base load; and natural gas gives you flexibility, because you can switch it on and off. It’s a beautiful basket of energies for the UAE,” he says.

In July 2017, on the same day that Construction Week visited Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, ENEC announced that cold hydrostatic testing (CHT) had been completed for the facility’s Unit 2, approximately 12 months after Unit 1 passed the same test.

CHT, according to the company, is used to verify that the welds, joints, pipes, and components of the reactor coolant system and its associated high-pressure systems comply with the standards of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR).

Established in 2009, the same year that ENEC was formed and the prime contract – valued at $20bn (AED73.5bn) – was awarded to Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO), FANR is the regulatory body responsible for ensuring that the plant’s design, construction, operation, and eventual decommissioning adhere to international standards of safety and quality.

Successfully completing FANR requirements, such as CHT, is treated as a huge milestone by ENEC, owing to the stringency of the regulator’s standards and policies, and the exhaustiveness of the processes involved in securing approvals and licences.