Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) confirmed last week that it had completed construction for its first of four large nuclear units. It also announced that the initial operation of the plant will be delayed until sometime in 2018 to allow sufficient time to gain more operational experience and obtain national and international readiness reviews. After those reviews have been successfully completed, the UAE nuclear regulator – Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) – will issue an operating license to allow fuel to be loaded into the reactor.
ENEC’s press release started with the good news; along with its partner, the Korean Electric Power Corporation, ENEC has completed construction and Hot Functional Tests of Barakah Unit 1 within the initially budgeted time and cost. That is an impressive accomplishment for a country that began pursuing nuclear energy development in earnest only a decade ago.
— Emirates Nuclear (@ENEC_UAE) May 5, 2017
There is every reason to be proud and excited about achieving the milestone of having completed the immensely challenging task of building a first of a kind large nuclear plant under some rather challenging conditions. The project has required the skilled management and task coordination of a massive, international, multilingual work force in a dusty, occasionally unbearably hot location.
“The completion of Unit 1 construction activities and the handover of all systems for commissioning are important milestones in a project that is critical to the future energy mix of the UAE, and they reflect the professionalism and dedication of everyone involved in the project,” said Mohamed Al Hammadi, Chief Executive Officer of ENEC.
Even though the completed unit is not the lead plant for the APR1400 series, it was begun long before the first APR1400 construction project was completed. Lessons from that construction effort were learned just in time to apply them to Barakah 1. Unfortunately, there was a two-plus year delay in achieving initial criticality and commercial operations at Shin Kori 3; a portion of that delay will cascade to Barakah 1 because it reduced the time available to gain operational experience.
The bottom line of ENEC’s announcement was that the ENEC Board of Directors had approved a new project timeline that shifted fuel loading and initial criticality of the facility from May 2017 to sometime in 2018. As the company explained,
ENEC also announced the approval by its Board of Directors of a timeline update for the start-up of Unit 1, driven by a desire to achieve the highest possible nuclear quality and safety standards. The approval follows a series of assessments by ENEC, Nawah and international experts, as well as lessons learned from Shin Kori Unit 3 in South Korea, the reference plant for Barakah. 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 personnel.
Explanation For The Delay
Instead of looking at the announcement of a significant operational delay as bad news and one more example of what is wrong with nuclear energy technology, it is more accurate to view the announcement as one more example of the fact that the UAE is following through with its commitments to the international community.
From the time that the decision was made to pursue nuclear energy development, leaders in the UAE have consistently asserted that they would apply the most rigorous set of standards to the project to ensure that it establishes and maintains an positive international reputation. They have committed to subject their program to intensive reviews, both the mandatory ones from their national regulator and voluntary ones from international bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).
ENEC submitted its operating license application to the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) in March of 2015 and is anticipating upcoming reviews by the IAEA and WANO. However, it is still working on operating procedures and operator training events that need to be completed and proven adequate before regulators can be satisfied that the company is ready to load fuel and begin critical operations.
Nawah is the joint venture between ENEC and Kepco that will be the operating company licensed by FANR.
“Nawah is currently working with the IAEA and WANO on the approach and timetable for their operational readiness assessments at Barakah later this year. These assessments will take place before we anticipate being granted our Operating License by FANR and begin the process of loading fuel assemblies into the reactor. The entire Nawah team is fully aligned around the objective of safe, reliable, and efficient operation of the first nuclear energy plant in the UAE,” said Mohammed Sahoo AlSuwaidi, Acting CEO of Nawah.
“As we move toward Unit 1 Fuel Load, we recognize the scale of both our responsibilities and of the challenges that lie ahead of us. Nawah’s commitment to meeting the highest standards of safety and quality in nuclear operations is what drives the work of all our personnel, who are striving to ensure that we meet FANR’s expectations and obtain regulatory approval to begin the start-up of Unit 1,” said AlSuwaidi.
Nuclear energy development is not the place for taking shortcuts. Even if the layers upon layers of protective systems ensure that the public would be protected even in the event of a plant catastrophe, seemingly minor operator errors can have enormous financial consequences. A measured, careful pace with plenty of time for operator practice and procedure refinement is far better than a rush job.
In the case of multibillion dollar facilities that will be in service for 60-100 years, a few months delay to get started correctly is a modest investment and a wise decision.
Note: A version of the above was first published by Forbes.com. It is republished here with permission.
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