Power boost: Looking to nuclear energy for a more cost-efficient supply

The arrival of nuclear energy in 2017 will bring a considerable change to Abu Dhabi’s power and water sector. It will not only diversify the emirate’s generation mix, but will also have an impact on the cost of electricity generation in the local market. Moreover, it will change the structure of the sector and create opportunities for stand-alone water production.

Calculations

Abu Dhabi and the UAE first began seriously looking into the potential deployment of nuclear energy for civil purposes under the umbrella of the GCC in 2006. However, momentum for the development of a nuclear energy programme fully took hold in April 2008 with the publication of a white paper entitled, “Policy of the UAE on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy”. The paper found that, based on a cumulative annual growth rate of around 9%, peak demand for electricity across the UAE would reach 40,000 MW in 2020. It also concluded that only 20,000 MW to 25,000 MW could be met by gas-fired generation given the availability of the fuel stock.

After assessing other options from liquids ( expensive and environmentally harmful) to renewables (capacity potential to meet only 6-7% of peak demand), the paper concluded, “Nuclear power-generation emerged as a proven, environmentally promising and commercially competitive option which could make a significant base-load contribution to the UAE’s economy and future energy security.”

The government-owned Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) was established in late 2009 to become the licensee for the operation and ownership of nuclear power plants in the UAE. In December 2009 ENEC selected a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) to be the prime contractor for the country’s nuclear programme, providing four APR 1400 power reactors.

The contract is worth $20.4bn and will provide 5600 MW of power rolled out in four units between 2017 and 2020. The consortium also anticipates revenue of some $20bn for operating the plants for the 60 years set out in the contract terms.

Location

By July 2012, ENEC had received approval from both the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), the UAE’s nuclear regulatory arm, and the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi to build the nuclear plants at Barakah, a coastal site located around 300 km to the west of Abu Dhabi City. The site was selected based on a variety of considerations, including distance from population centres, proximity to water supply (in this case the Gulf itself), geological and seismic history, proximity to and links with the UAE’s power grid, existing transport and industrial infrastructure, and other security and environmental factors.

Since the mid-2012 approval, work has progressed quickly on the first power plant at Barakah – known as Barakah Unit One – which is scheduled to come on-line by 2017, provided the regulatory approval process moves along as expected.

In October 2013 KEPCO, with ENEC’s approval, awarded a $60m contract to the Abu Dhabi-based Hilal Bil Badi and Partners Contracting Company (HILALCO) to build critical water intake infrastructure at all four of the Barakah plants. HILALCO, which was established in 1996, has carried out a wide variety of civil infrastructure projects in the UAE.

Additionally, in November 2013 ENEC completed the nine-month process of installing Barakah Unit One’s container liner plate, an enormous steel shell that will eventually house the nuclear reactor itself. Work on Barakah Unit Two, meanwhile, has been under way since May 2013, with an expected completion date of 2018. The construction activity at Barakah has attracted a number of high-level visitors.

In late January 2013, for example, Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear regulatory arm, toured the site. Meanwhile, in early November 2013 Kristine L Svinicki, the commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, also visited the construction site.

Weighing Options

 The first deployment of nuclear power within the GCC will have significant implications for the sector within Abu Dhabi. The large-scale roll-out of nuclear power within the federation has been driven by strategic decisions regarding the best use of the country’s resources. Once the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) decided that the marginal utility of the emirate’s gas reserves is best served by reinjection into its oil fields to support revenue generation from oil sales rather than for power generation, the government began looking at other ways of producing electricity beyond natural gas.

ADNOC has gone from providing 89.5% of the fuel (mainly natural gas but also back-up liquid fuels) for power generation in 2006 to providing 40.9% in 2012. The remaining natural gas for electricity generation comes from Dolphin Energy, a joint venture between the government-owned investment firm Mubadala Development Company (51%), Total (24.5%) and Occidental (24.5%). The company pipes gas from Qatar’s North Field to the UAE. Current output stands at around 2bn cu feet per day.

Constraints

However, with the Qatari government placing a moratorium on the production increases from the North Field while it assesses the state of the reservoir, Abu Dhabi will be unable to meet growing demand for electricity using Qatari gas alone.

Furthermore, with limited additional supply coming from ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (ADWEC) will now be exposed to the volatility of the international liquefied natural gas (LNG) market. ADWEC’s annual fuel demand forecast sees yearly natural gas consumption across the whole network increasing by an estimated 46% between 2012 and 2016 to reach 1.01trn British thermal units (Btu) in the latter year.

As the chance of procuring additional natural gas from existing sources will be constrained, Abu Dhabi expects to rely on imports for some of its fuel requirements. To this end, Mubadala Petroleum and the International Petroleum Investment Corporation set up Emirates LNG, a 50:50 joint venture, in March 2012. The company is building regasification facilities to provide an import capacity of 9m tonnes per year.

Given these developments, the Abu Dhabi government has decided to look at alternative sources of generation for the long-term stability and security of the domestic utilities sector. In 2012 the emirate relied on natural gas as the feedstock for 99.9% of electricity generation, according to ADWEC. The introduction of the nuclear programme should see this source of generation meet more than 25% of peak demand requirements by 2020.

Recent UAE studies have found that nuclear energy will be a much more cost-competitive option for baseload electricity generation. Without nuclear power, the country would be heavily reliant on LNG imports, which would significantly drive up energy costs.

Encouraging Prospects

 With gas feedstock prices increasing, the government has been looking into a number of alternatives. The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) has already brought 100 MW to the sector in the form of the Shams 1 power plant, the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world. Although the cost of generation from this early entrant to the solar market is high, solar prices have plummeted globally since 2008 and the technology is likely to become much more competitive over the coming years.

The emirate, through the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA), is also considering the development of a 100-MW waste-to-energy power facility by 2017. Although the primary purpose of this development would be to help address the emirate’s growing landfill problem, with the electricity created almost as a by-product of this objective, there are indications that the project’s unit cost would be competitive with nuclear energy.

Nuclear Framework

Given its high capacity factor, huge carbon emissions savings (of around 12m tonnes per year) and increasing cost competitiveness, nuclear energy is seen as the best way to meet the strong demand growth expected over the next decade. As such, the government, through the FANR, has been developing the necessary framework and regulatory infrastructure for the quick roll-out of nuclear power within the federation.

FANR has been working on putting the regulatory infrastructure in place since 2009. Given that ENEC and its South Korean contractor, KEPCO, will be using technology based on US designs, FANR has looked to US nuclear regulation guidelines with modifications for local appropriation.

FANR has already approved the construction licence for ENEC for units 1 and 2 in July 2012 and will be expecting to receive an operating licence application from the company as early as 2015. The construction process is receiving close oversight, with inspectors visiting every other week and an on-site inspection office scheduled to open in early 2014. Furthermore, the UAE’s regulator has engaged with international bodies to ensure compliance with both international regulations and best practice.

FANR had an integrated regulatory review session with the IAEA in December 2011 and has been participating in the review sessions of the Convention on Nuclear Safety. In addition, the authority gave a presentation on its work for critique by its international counterparts in 2011 and will do so again in 2014. With all the pieces thus in place, the country is on track to open its first nuclear power plant by 2017, a development that will signal the ongoing diversification of Abu Dhabi’s electricity sector.

From Scratch

When the government first announced its plans to develop civilian nuclear power in 2008, the UAE had limited human capacity to support the industry. Since then, the government has invested in building the local nuclear workforce. While a large percentage of the employees that will eventually operate ENEC’s nuclear power plants are initially expected to come from abroad, the firm is working to ensure a 60% Emiratisation rate by 2020, at which point the project is expected to employ 2000 individuals. The company’s Energy Pioneers Education Programme, which was developed in conjunction with FANR and the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (KU), for example, provides scholarships to high achieving Emirati secondary school graduates, current university students, and working science and technology professionals.

The initiative funds education and training through a handful of entities, including KU and Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, both of which are domestic institutions, and major foreign organisations such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, KEPCO and a number of US-based universities. The programme has so far yielded positive results.

“One of the important lessons that we’ve learned in our experience of developing this programme is the absolute importance in developing your people well before you choose your technology,” George Vanderheyden, ENEC’s chief nuclear officer, said in a speech delivered at the inaugural New Nuclear International Conference, which was held in Abu Dhabi in November 2013. “Through our mechanical engineering-nuclear programme at KU, the higher diploma in nuclear technology at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic and a high school programme targeting students as early as age 14, we have effectively changed the UAE education system to nurture the next generation of Emirati pioneers in the industry. More importantly, these programmes are showing fantastic returns – 82% of our trainees have been accepted for employment at the Barakah power plant.”

Regional Influence

Since launching its civilian nuclear power programme in 2008, the UAE has become a major presence in the international nuclear power community, both regionally and further afield. ENEC’s commitment to safety and transparency has resulted in the UAE being held up as a model for other nations wishing to develop nuclear power. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been pursuing a civilian nuclear power programme since at least 2009. In conjunction with a number of international consultancies, including the Australian firm WorleyParsons, the kingdom has developed a top-level nuclear framework. By September 2013 the government had decided on a short-list of three potential sites to situate nuclear power plants, including Jizan and Tabuk on the Red Sea and Jubail on the Gulf.

Additionally, as of late 2013, Saudi Arabia was in the process of establishing a national nuclear holding company. The Saudi Arabian Atomic Regulatory Authority, meanwhile, is expected to begin operations in 2014. Overall, Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power plants at an estimated total cost of $80bn over the next 20 years, with the first plant projected to come on-line by 2022. A handful of other Gulf nations – including Qatar and Kuwait – have also considered developing nuclear power over the past half decade, though as of the end of 2013 none had gone any further than carrying out initial studies.

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