Four nuclear reactors are under construction in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The nuclear power plant is named Barakah – Arabic for Divine Blessing. The South Korean winning bid for the construction of the UAE reactors was spectacularly low, about 30 percent lower than the next cheapest bid, with the chief executive of a French nuclear corporation. This is because the Barakah reactors don’t contain essential safety features such as either additional reactor containment or a ‘core-catcher’ – both of which are expected in all new nuclear reactors in Europe.
The decision not to include additional defence in the Barakah reactor containment building is important, since they’re designed to defend against significant radiation pollution release in the event of an accidental or deliberate large airplane crash or military attack – issues that recent events have brought into stark relief. The Gulf faces unique challenges when it comes to nuclear power. The tense geopolitical environment makes nuclear power an even more controversial issue here than elsewhere, since Gulf states are worried that neighbours could use their civilian nuclear programs for military ends. Unless enrichment of uranium and reprocessing technologies are effectively regulated against diversion of civil materials for military purposes, the reality is that new nuclear power plants can provide the cover to develop and make nuclear weapons.
UAE’s neighbors, the Saudi’s, have made it clear on more than one occasion that there’s another reason for their interest in nuclear energy technology which was not captured by the royal decree on their nuclear program – the relationship of the civil program to nuclear weapons. This is hardly news to US government officials negotiating the Nuclear Co-operation Agreement. Although the UAE suggest otherwise, there remains the possibility that the Emirates may also decide to pursue advanced nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. One issue will be the fate of separated plutonium, and whether overseas reprocessing will encourage the UAE to use plutonium-based fuels at Barakah. These fresh plutonium-bearing mixed oxide (MOX) fuels, pose a more serious proliferation risk than spent fuel or low enriched uranium fuels, and up to 30 percent of the Barakah APR1400 reactor cores can be loaded with MOX fuel with minor modifications.
UAE has just renewed its Memorandum of Understanding on nuclear fuel cycle management with Tenex, a subsidiary of the Russian state nuclear corporation ROSATOM. The World Nuclear Association have confirmed that Tenex will also provide 50 percent of Barakah’s enrichment capability, worth some $500 million, indicating the emergence of a potential back-channel for the Emirates to obtain advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies.