DUBAI • The United Arab Emirates has become the first Arab country to open a nuclear power plant, raising concerns about the long-term impact of introducing more nuclear programmes to the Middle East.
“UAE first nuclear reactor at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant has achieved first criticality and successfully started up,” tweeted Ambassador Hamad Alkaabi, the country’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, last Saturday.
“This is a historic milestone for the nation with a vision to deliver a new form of clean energy for the nation,” he tweeted in English, along with a photo of technicians raising their arms in celebration.
UAE Premier and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, tweeted that work at Barakah had “succeeded in loading nuclear fuel packages, carrying out comprehensive tests and successfully completing the operation”.
“Congratulations on realising this historic achievement in the energy sector and marking this milestone in the road map for sustainable development,” he said.
The announcement, coinciding with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, comes hot on the heels of the UAE’s launch of the Arab world’s first probe to Mars.
Two other countries in the region – Israel and Iran – already have nuclear capabilities. Israel has an unacknowledged nuclear weapons arsenal and Iran has a controversial uranium enrichment programme it insists is solely for peaceful purposes.
The UAE, a tiny nation that has become a regional heavyweight and international business centre, said it built the plant to decrease its reliance on the oil that has powered and enriched the country and its Gulf neighbours for decades.
Barakah was built by a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corp at a cost of some US$24.4 billion (S$33.5 billion).
When fully operational, the facility’s four reactors will have the capacity to generate 5,600MW of electricity, about 25 per cent of the nation’s needs.
Seeking to calm fears that it was trying to build muscle to use against its regional rivals, the UAE has insisted that it intends to use its nuclear programme only for energy purposes.
But with Iran in a stand-off with Western powers over its nuclear programme, Israel in the neighbourhood and tensions high among Gulf countries, some analysts view the new plant – and any that may follow – as a security and environmental headache. Other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also starting or planning their own nuclear energy programmes.
Qatar, the target of a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others since June 2017, said last year that the Barakah plant posed a “flagrant threat to regional peace and environment”.
“The UAE’s investment in these four nuclear reactors risks further destabilising the volatile Gulf region, damaging the environment and raising the possibility of nuclear proliferation,” Dr Paul Dorfman, a researcher at University College London’s Energy Institute, wrote in an op-ed in March.
Offering evidence that its intentions are peaceful, the UAE points to its collaborations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has reviewed the Barakah project, and the United States, with which it signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement in 2009.
The agreement allows it to receive nuclear materials and technical assistance from the US while barring it from uranium enrichment and other possible bomb-development activities.
The nuclear plant on the Gulf coast west of Abu Dhabi had been due to go online in late 2017, but faced a number of delays that officials attributed to safety and regulatory requirements.
The UAE hopes the plant, besides generating competitively priced electricity, will elevate the nation’s status as a key regional player, building on its success as a hub for tourism, banking and services.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE