Arab World’s First Nuclear Reactor Cleared for Startup

The United Arab Emirates took a final step toward switching on the Arab world’s first commercial nuclear power plant, even as the country prospers by producing and selling fossil fuels.

The U.A.E.’s regulatory watchdog gave long-awaited approval on Monday to the operator of the Barakah reactor, nudging the U.A.E. to the brink of membership in an elite club of 30 countries that make power from smashing atoms.

Built and run by a joint venture with Korea Electric Power Corp., the plant can now start loading fuel and ramp up to full commercial operation within several months. Other Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are also pushing into nuclear power in spite of questions about cost and safety.

“Barakah was meant to be the showcase for the international nuclear industry,” said Mycle Schneider, an independent analyst. “Grid connection is at least three years late, and there is no doubt that it is way over budget.”

Barakah is the first of four civilian reactors that the government plans to fire up by 2023. The plants, located on a sparsely populated strip of desert on the Persian Gulf coast, are estimated to cost $25 billion. The U.A.E. expects them to produce as much as 5.6 gigawatts once they’re fully commissioned, or almost a fifth of the country’s current installed generating capacity.

Earlier Efforts

Arab nations have tried, and failed, in years past to build nuclear capabilities. Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a well-developed program until Israel, an unacknowledged nuclear state, stifled his ambitions by destroying the Osiris research reactor in an air raid in 1981. Non-Arab Iran has operated the Bushehr facility since 2011, but Tehran faces crippling U.S. sanctions over its atomic program.

Barakah marks a new milestone for the region. The U.A.E., third-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is trying to diversify its domestic energy supply and lessen its dependence on oil. Dubai, the country’s business hub, targets meeting 75% of its needs from solar energy and other renewables by 2050.

Schneider questions the regional nuclear push. “Nuclear power is now clearly the most expensive form of electricity generation,” the analyst said. While the cost of solar photo-voltaic power on a utility scale has plunged 90% over the past decade, nuclear power costs have risen by 26%, Schneider said.

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