21 August 2020

Barakah, UAE: Grid Connection of First Commercial Reactor in the Arab World

WNISR 21 August 2020

Barakah-1, the first commercial nuclear reactor in the Arab world

In a significant milestone for the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first commercial nuclear reactor, Barakah-1, was connected to the grid on 19 August 2020. It is the first commercial nuclear reactor to begin operations in the Arab world and the first in the Middle East since Iran’s Busheer-1 started up on 3 September 2011. Completion of construction of Barakah-2 was announced on 14 July 2020, with fuel loading expected in the following months.

Barakah-1 is one of four APR-1400 reactors built at the site, 53 km from the city of Ruwais in the Al Dhafra region and 300 km west of the capital Abu Dhabi. The UAE initiated its nuclear power program in 2009, when it signed a US$20 billion-dollar contract with the Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO). The deal initiated the construction of four reactors with a total capacity of 5.6 GW at the Barakah site, with the first reactor scheduled for operation in 2017. The plant operator, Nawah Energy Company, a subsidiary of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), received a 60-year operating license for the reactor on 16 February 2020 from the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR).

ENEC CEO Mohamed Al Hammadi stated: “Grid connection of unit 1 really is the beginning of a new era in our project, which is built upon years of preparation and adherence to the highest international safety and quality standards. We are confident in our people and our technology to continue to progress to reach commercial operations, and the completion of the remaining three units, with the goal to power up to 25% of the UAE’s electricity needs for at least the next 60 years.”

A tentative schedule published in late December 2010 suggested that—with construction starting on one unit per year between 2012 and 2015—Barakah-1 with work officially beginning on 19 July 2012 would start commercial operation in May 2017; with Unit 2 operating from 2018, Unit 3 starting up in 2019, and Unit 4 following in 2020. However, the project has experienced several delays. Concerns of design safety, staff training, security and proliferation implications have been raised during the past years.

In 2009, ENEC had said that “the contract for the construction, commissioning and fuel loads for four units equaled approximately US$20 billion, with a high percentage of the contract being offered under a fixed-price arrangement”. The original financing plan for the project was thought to include US$10 billion from the Export-Import Bank of Korea, US$2 billion from the Ex-Im Bank of the U.S., US$6 billion from the government of Abu Dhabi, and US$2 billion from commercial banks.

However, it later transpired that the total cost of the project is at least US$24.4 billion. Reportedly, its financing was US$16.2 billion from Abu Dhabi’s Department of Finance, equity financing US$4.7 billion, US$2.5 billion through a loan from the Export-Import Bank of Korea, with loan agreements from the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, First Gulf Bank, HSBC and Standard Chartered making up the remainder. In October 2016, KEPCO took an 18-percent equity stake in the Nawah Energy Company, with ENEC holding the remaining 82 percent.

As late as October 2016, the South Korean press was reporting Unit 1 to be still scheduled for completion by May 2017. Then, in May 2017, Reuters suggested that the startup of the first reactor was delayed, potentially until the end of 2017, due to a lack of locally trained and licensed domestic personnel. The same month, ENEC announced it had “completed initial construction activities for Unit 1” and the “handover of all systems for commissioning”; the plant as a whole would be 81 percent complete, with Barakah-1 at 95 percent finished. At the same time, ENEC stated: “The timeline includes an extension for the start-up of nuclear operations for Unit 1, from 2017 to 2018, to ensure sufficient time for international assessments and adherence to nuclear industry safety standards, as well as a reinforcement of operational proficiency for plant."

In July 2018, a new delay was announced so that startup of Unit 1 would be in late 2019 or early 2020, three years behind schedule.

Significant details on the multiple causes of the delays in operation have not been made public. However, the announcement of further delays in July 2018 was likely linked to a need for the completion of Organizational Readiness and Constructed-as-Designed assessments which the IAEA has carried out during its 2018-Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR). Two specific areas on the critical path for achieving readiness were personnel training and certification, including arrangements and procedures.