Middle East

UAE nuclear plant gets construction green light

The United Arab Emirates geared up Wednesday to begin construction of its first nuclear energy plant after the oil-rich country's nuclear regulator gave its blessing for work to begin.

The green light by the UAE's Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation will make the seven-state federation the first country in more than two and a half decades to begin building its first nuclear power plant.

The license covers the construction of the first two reactors of a plant slated for a remote coastal site near the border with Saudi Arabia.

It is designed to meet growing demand for power in the rapidly developing country, which includes the Mideast commercial hub Dubai and the energy-rich capital Abu Dhabi. Despite its oil wealth, the OPEC member has to import natural gas to run many of its existing power plants and has struggled to keep up with demand.

FANR Director General William Travers called the granting of the construction license "an important milestone in any nuclear program."

"All of the specific characteristics of the site have been assessed," he told The Associated Press. "It represents at least a preliminary approval of the design that's been proposed."

Travers, a veteran of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the UAE regulator specifically asked the plant's developer, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp., to examine lessons learned from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster as part of the approval process.

"We had an opportunity ... to take account of Fukushima and do something on paper before it was already constructed," he said.

That review prompted ENEC to propose some design changes, such as adding watertight doors in certain areas, but no major adjustments were needed, Travers said.

The license does not authorize the state-backed ENEC to physically import nuclear fuel or operate the reactors. That approval requires another round of applications to the regulator.

ENEC in late 2009 awarded the $20 billion contract to build the power plant to a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corp. The Korean company beat out more seasoned atomic power producers in France, Japan and the United States. It will be the first time South Korea is building a nuclear plant overseas.

Mohamed al-Hammadi, ENEC's chief executive, welcomed the regulatory approval, saying it shows that the company is "committed to the highest standards of safety and quality." The company is mobilizing a team to move ahead with construction, he added.

Four 1,400-megawatt reactors are expected to eventually be built on the sparsely populated Barakah site in the far west of the UAE.

China was the last country to begin building its first nuclear power plant in 1985, according to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

ENEC hopes to have the first reactor running by 2017.