Nuclear power in the UAE: a new source of energy or friction?

By Sepehr Archard | 4th September 2020

The construction of the Barakah plant started in 2009, and this month one of the 4 reactors began nuclear fission at the facility, allowing the country to rely on another “ecological” resource. This project signifies a shift in strategy for the oil-rich country as they increased the investment in solar power plants, financed an incredible $2 billion for a state-of-the-art solar power plant near Abu Dhabi and now, have their first nuclear power plant.  But there are rising questions on the possible threats that the countries face from the other regional countries such as Qatar and Iran (since they are still in a “cold war” with Iran since the Yemen war started) and Saudi Arabia that is increasingly seen as an enemy rather than an ally.

Why did the Kingdom invest in a $24 billion nuclear plant that would face threats from the countries around them?

Let’s face it, nuclear energy has always been a very sensitive subject since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From its capacity to generate a tremendous amount of electricity to the the damages it can cause, as there is a thin line between military nuclear proliferation and civil nuclear power, governments have struggled with nuclear energy. 

For the UAE, experts are questioning its usefulness since the country has over 300 days of sun a year and is one of the most important oil producers in the world. A nuclear plant would also cost more than a solar one. Due to the sweltering climate of the region, additional measures would have to be implemented to prevent the reactor from overheating. Even if nuclear power provides more energy than a solar panel, as once the nuclear plant finished, it will produce roughly 5.6 gigawatts of electricity, supplying up to 25% of the UAE’s need, it will still be cheaper to use solar power than nuclear power. For the same amount of produced electricity, the cost of the plant installation would be nearly 3 times cheaper than the next generation nuclear facility. 

The total production capacity of the country is roughly around 1.6 gigawatts and cost a total of 2 billion USD, to produce 5.6 gigawatts, the emirates will need to invest roughly 8 billion USD and they will remain roughly 3 times cheaper than the nuclear facility they constructed.

To breakeven they will need to use it, with a consumption identical to 2019, for roughly 20 years (according to data collected from the French nuclear institute) whereas the solar power plant needs to be used for roughly 7 to 10 years to breakeven.

Additionally, the cost for maintenance is cheaper in a solar power plant as the average cost per kWh produced is 49 cents according to the American nuclear society, whereas the same expense is 5 cents in a solar plant according to the American electricity power company.

However, one important fact that experts rarely mention is that the UAE faces constant dust storms which severely alters the productivity of the solar panels. In fact, it is believed that the plants are actually producing 30% of their total production capacity (1.6 Gigawatts) which would explain the choice of shifting from solar panels to nuclear energy which will be less impacted by natural events.

Another point raised was the questions surrounding the purpose behind this Barakah plant, given the country’s potential and surrounding tensions in the region. Paul Dorfman, who heads the Nuclear Consulting Group and is a research associate at UCL's Energy Institute, has warned the UAE's investment"risks further destabilising the volatile Gulf region."

He argued that the investment into the new plant is "strange" given the falling prices of renewable energy technology and rising costs of nuclear power generation, and that the actual nature of the nuclear project might hide another plan which is nuclear weapon proliferation.

As we can see in the map above, the nuclear facility is located right in front of Iran and Qatar which are two historical enemies from the Kingdom. In fact, since 2014-2015, the Emirates have been in an indirect war against Iran in Yemen (the UAE supported the militia representing the Sunnite religion and Iran supported the militia representing the Shiite religion). Saudi Arabia is also a few kilometers away from the plant and became throughout the years a rival to the Emirates, as the latter is becoming a more important leader in the political and strategic decisions that are taken in the gulf in lieu of Saudi Arabia (the U.A.E recently signed an agreement with Israel, sent the first Arab mission on planet Mars and opened the first nuclear plant in an Arabic country before Saudi Arabia).

Last of all, even if the concerns of experts are understandable given the current situation, the nuclear plant is monitored by the IAEA (international atomic energy agency) who made over 200 investigation over the last 2 years to ensure its real intent. In addition, the UAE has signed the Non-Proliferation act which guarantees that they will not engage nor try to develop nuclear weapons or else they will face sanctions. Notwithstanding, that Iran did sign the treaty in 1970 and yet engaged in nuclear proliferation.

Overall, we can conclude that the nuclear plant was first of all not the most affordable type of energy that the UAE could use and that in a period where there are rising concerns in the region over a possible war it could become a real threat to the “stability” of the region. As time unfolds, it will be interesting to see what the true purpose of the plant may be.