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UAE to develop radioactive waste management policy

Reprocessing is one of the possible long-term strategies the UAE is considering for managing spent nuclear fuel

The UAE’s Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant project is 81% complete.
The UAE’s Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant project is 81% complete.

The UAE government is in the process of developing a national radioactive waste management policy for the nuclear waste that will be generated at the Barakah nuclear power plant.

At a press briefing held on 17 July, in Abu Dhabi, officials from Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) said that the planned policy will address the management and disposal of not only spent nuclear fuel, but other radioactive waste in the country.

The policy will reportedly identify long-term waste management strategies, with the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel among the options being considered.

ENEC stressed, however, that if the government did decide in favour of the reprocessing strategy, the service would be outsourced and implemented outside the UAE, in compliance with the conditions of the UAE’s Peaceful Nuclear Energy Program.

According to ENEC, the UAE wants to show how nuclear energy can be used for “peaceful purposes without opening any doors to different uses” by deciding against allowing enrichment and reprocessing to be done in the country.

Elaborating, Maryam Qasem, head of nuclear fuel fabrication procurement at ENEC, said that enrichment refers to the process of increasing the percent composition of the isotope uranium-235 from 0.72% – the amount found in natural uranium – to 5%, so the uranium can be used to generate nuclear energy for electricity purposes.

Qasem noted that the process carries risks because uranium can be weaponised by increasing the isotope composition to 90%. This risk is reportedly what the UAE government wants to avoid, hence the decision not to allow enrichment to be conducted in the country.

With reprocessing, on the other hand, there’s concern that it could lead to a possible proliferation of plutonium, which can also be used to make weapons.

“After the uranium goes through the reactor and undergoes various nuclear reactions, you end up with different kinds of elements, one being plutonium,” Qasem said, adding: “What reprocessing does is separate the uranium from the plutonium –that is the source of concern.”

She said that whether the government decides to go for reprocessing remains to be seen, pointing out that the country still has time to mull over its options because its current waste management strategy will allow for 70 to 80 years of safe storage at the plant.

This strategy, Qasem explained, involves the use of concrete and steel-lined “spent fuel pools”, where used fuel will be stored for 10 to 20 years, allowing it to cool, before it is then moved to concrete and steel containers called dry casks, for long-term storage.

During the press briefing, ENEC also announced that the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, which consists of four nuclear reactors housed in four separate units and the largest single nuclear energy new-build project in the world, is now 81% complete.

Click here to watch a video showing how work on the project has progressed since construction of Unit 1 commenced in 2012.

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