United Arab Emirates Set to Build First Nuclear Power Plant

The United Arab Emirates will be the first among Gulf region Arab states to build a nuclear power plant after getting past an important permitting barrier this week. The UAE's regulatory body, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, will grant a license for the country's first two nuclear reactors to be built near the Saudi Arabian border.

Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. will spend $20 billion to build the power plant, construction for which has been contracted out to Korea Electric Power Corp. A total of four 1400 megawatt reactors are planned for the site eventually, and ENEC wants the first to be running within five years. By 2020, they want to provide as much as 20 percent of the country's power.

The UAE is one of only a handful of countries actively moving toward nuclear energy in the wake of last year's Fukushima disaster in Japan. France (and its 58 reactors accounting for 75 percent of electricity generation) isn't backing off, and China may jump from fewer than 20 up to 100 reactors running by 2020. As for the United States, no particular position has been taken after Fukushima beyond some additional safety checks, but reactor plans in Georgia and elsewhere will theoretically move forward sometime soon.

Beyond those countries, though, the general trend has been a full sprint in the opposite direction. The most high profile nuclear defector is Germany, which has been joined in planning to close reactors or simply abandoning plans to build some by Belgium, Switzerland, Mexico, and the Netherlands. Japan itself shut down all of its 55 reactors for a few months before restarting recently, though long-term plans aren't likely to feature nuclear power very prominently.

While France's position makes sense, why would a small country like the UAE dive into an extremely expensive and now quite fraught industry, especially given the region's oil wealth? The AP says that the country imports natural gas to generate power and has actually struggled to meet demand as wealth and prosperity there have increased. Energy Information Administration data indicates a net import of 327 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2010, in spite of production in the UAE of 1.8 trillion cubic feet that same year. Electricity capacity in the country also suggests an impressively growing need: installed capacity has risen from just over 9 gigawatts in 2002 all the way to more than 18 gigawatts only six years later, while consumption rose from 40 to 70 billion kilowatt-hours over the same period. In that context, four nuclear reactors -- or even the first two approved in this week's regulatory action -- will make a big dent in growing demand.

Image: Dubai at night, via Federico Ravassard

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