The UAE government has recently announced its intention to produce nuclear power with assurances that it will meet international standards and conduct all processes with transparency. The distinctive feature of the policy is that the UAE would import the fuel from ‘friendly and responsible’ suppliers rather than enriching uranium locally, in order to be unambiguous about its peaceful intentions.
Already the Evaluation Paper has been endorsed by US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the UAE government seems to be fast-tracking its journey on the nuclear road, perhaps to attain another first for the Gulf region and provide a template for other Arab nations to follow.
The debates in Ireland, New Zealand and Poland led to the decision not to proceed down the nuclear path and referendums in Austria, Sweden and Italy had a similar effect. Where does the public forum on nuclear power take place in the UAE, being a country where there is an implicit trust in the avuncular benevolence of sheikdom? In this spirit of transparency, questions need to be raised and answered before leaping onto the nuclear bandwagon.
Questions must be asked about safety. The spectre of nuclear power accidents still looms large from a long list of accidents including Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The thousands of deaths and injuries highlight the tragedies that have happened as a result of system failure and human error.
In the week that the UAE Cabinet tabled the nuclear programme, two major accidents occurred. The first took place at an army base near the Albanian capital of Tirana where six explosions of massive proportions killed or injured more than 200 people. It appeared that human error was to blame for the blasts, despite the dismantling of the bombs and missiles being done under the supervision of NATO experts. Later in the week a massive blast at a fireworks warehouse in Dubai killed two people and sparked a blaze that put at risk hundreds of businesses and factories in the highly concentrated industrial area of Al-Quoz. A warehouse manager said the explosion looked like a nuclear mushroom, providing a salutary reminder that accidents do happen.
The promise of safety depends largely upon the people who operate the plants but absolute security cannot be guaranteed. What measures will there be to prevent harmful radioactive material from being discharged into the land, sea and atmosphere? How close will the power plants be to cities and what are the health risks for people living near the nuclear power plants? What plans does the UAE have for the storage and transportation of the radioactive waste from the nuclear installations?
A further safety issue is the possibility of nuclear fuel being sabotaged during transportation and power plants being targeted by terrorists. Safeguards might be implemented in the design and location of its plants but the accuracy of modern weapons leaves nuclear plants extremely vulnerable to attack.
The UAE policy paper restates the nation’s commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, once a country develops nuclear power plants, it is difficult to argue that other nations should not possess nuclear technology for the dual purpose of power and weaponry. The trend towards acquiring nuclear energy leads to proliferation, including countries that will neither sign treaties nor commit to transparency. The recent warning by Hillary Clinton, who told Tehran that if she were to become the President, the United States could ‘totally obliterate’ Iran in retaliation for a nuclear strike against Israel, points up the way that nuclear power can be used to threaten and cause devastating harm.
The main argument given for the nuclear road is economic—that nuclear power will be necessary to meet the extensive electricity demands in 2020 that are being created by the unprecedented economic growth of the nation. However, the recent independent study, ‘The Economics of Nuclear Power’, signals some warnings: The construction costs of nuclear power plants are consistently higher than forecast, this industry involves high capital costs and poor performance, the decommissioning costs when a nuclear plant is retired are unpredictable and the diminishing uranium resources will raise the cost of nuclear fuel resources.
Despite the flurry of interest among the GCC countries to join the nuclear club, the 50-year old nuclear industry has been in decline since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The UAE is committing to an old energy model that lacks innovation.
The nuclear option is being promoted as ‘clean energy’ because nuclear power produces less carbon dioxide emissions than a plant fueled by crude oil. But nuclear production still contributes significant greenhouse gas emissions and cannot be classed as ‘green’ power such as energy which is generated by wind and solar technology. Is the UAE proposal of opting for ‘clean energy’ a smokescreen as in its projections there are no plans to reduce dependency on fossil fuel and imported natural gas?
Green Power Questions
Pitched as a panacea for its energy ills, the White Paper argues that other forms of energy, including wind and solar power, will be insufficient to meet the UAE energy demands. This approach too quickly dismisses clean energy solutions and diverts attention and resources away from renewable technologies and steps to improve energy efficiency.
In February, it was announced that Masdar, a model city in Abu Dhabi, would become the ‘greenest city’ in the world by being waste and carbon free, devoid of cars and powered by solar energy. CEO of the project, Dr Sultan Ali Jaber predicted, “Masdar City will become the world’s hub for future energy. By taking sustainable development and living to a new level, it will lead the world in understanding how all future cities should be built.”
Now with long term energy plans being tied to nuclear and oil sources, the UAE is ignoring its own model, leading Masdar to become a $22 billion white elephant. In a world confronted by climate change, the nation with the largest ecological footprint must take a giant step toward sustainable and renewable energy production.
Dr. Geoff Pound
Image: Nuclear Power Plant at Cattenom, France.