The UAE is watching closely as Japan faces serious circumstances at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the devastating earthquake and tsunami last Friday that has left hundreds dead and thousands missing.
The earthquake was the largest in Japan's recorded history, a country prone to frequent seismic activity, and the 7th largest earthquake ever to be recorded in the world.
According to Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi - UAE Permanent Representative to the IAEA and a Purdue-trained nuclear engineer, it will be some time before authorities can draw any informed conclusions.
"Our thoughts are with the people of Japan as they deal with this immense humanitarian catastrophe," Al Kaabi said.
"Japanese authorities, according to what we know so far, are taking some important measures to ensure the safety of the public and reduce the escalation of the events. They have called upon the international nuclear energy community for help, as demonstrated by their request to the IAEA for support and accepting expert assistance offered by some countries.
"As the event is still developing, it will take some time before we understand this incident in enough detail to draw real conclusions. There is no doubt, however, that there will be lessons learned from Japan that will enable the industry to improve the rigorous safety practices that are already in place around the world," he added.
Up to a quarter of the UAE's electricity could come from nuclear energy by 2020. The UAE's decision to pursue nuclear energy followed an extensive study that considered all possible alternatives.
The UAE has gained international support from government officials, non-proliferation advocates and energy experts worldwide, who have described the nation's approach as the gold standard for countries interested in exploring nuclear energy for the first time.
Ambassador Al Kaabi has been heavily involved in the UAE's nuclear energy programme from the very beginning.
He is also a board member of the UAE's nuclear regulator, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), an independent federal agency charged with regulation and licensing of all nuclear energy activities in the UAE with public safety as its primary objective.
"Nuclear energy emerged as the right choice for the UAE to diversify its electricity supply. In making this choice UAE recognised the importance and responsibility of ensuring highest standards nuclear safety and protection of the public as a fundament principle. We are developing a programme that is based on the best practices of the global nuclear energy sector, using proven technology that meets the highest international standards for safety and performance".
First of four by 2017
Four nuclear energy plants are planned for construction, with the first plant to be connected to the Abu Dhabi grid by 2017.
"Safety has been designed into every phase of our programme. It is an integral part of our approach, our culture and any reactor design we build," Al Kaabi said.
The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) is the organisation responsible for the design, construction and operation of the UAE's first nuclear energy plants. The company has selected the APR1400 - a third generation reactor design from South Korean company, Kepco.
"The APR1400 nuclear power plant is proven technology with many advanced safety features. It is designed to withstand severe accidents and events; even those with a very low probability of occurrence. It has evolved from decades of global and South Korean nuclear engineering and safe operating experience,"Al Kaabi said.
"With this technology, the UAE's reactors will boast some of the highest safety levels in the world today. Our requirements, including FANR regulations, dictate a comprehensive assessment of any proposed design before a construction licence is issued. FANR regulations and requirements are based on the IAEA safety standards and on the cumulative experience and best practices of the industry.
"As is the case with all entities involved in the power sector in the UAE, benefiting from shared experiences and lessons learned from our global partners is part of our approach to ensure the highest standards of safety in our sector," he added.
Enec has selected a preferred site for the nuclear energy plants, which is located at Braka in the Western Region of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi on the Arabian Gulf, approximately 53 kilometers west-southwest of the city of Ruwais. Final approval for the site rests FANR.
Before construction on the site begins, FANR must also approve the design for the nuclear energy plants, and certify that they can safely withstand any likely geological event including severe events such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
According to Ambassador Al Kaabi, extensive analysis went into the site selection. "A comprehensive study was conducted by a team of international experts before selecting Braka as the proposed site. One of the most important factors in choosing Braka was the fact that it is in an area with a very low probability of earthquakes - what is called 'low seismicity'," he said.
"Engineers take into account the probability, force and speed of possible earthquakes and tsunamis when siting and constructing nuclear energy plants. Exhaustive attention has been given to understanding the physics of seismic events and ensuring that today's plants are built to address an extreme sequence of events through design basis and the use of advanced and redundancy safety systems," he added.
Tsunami, quake resistant
Tsunami activity is another factor in site selection and reactor design that the UAE government and Enec has carefully considered.
"The Arabian Gulf is not an area with a history of tsunami activity. Still, the Braka power plants are designed to withstand a significant tsunami event, it is part of design requirements" he said.
In any event, the UAE's nuclear reactors are specifically designed with one safety objective in mind - to confine and contain radiation at all cost. The reactor core is housed in a large steel vessel, enclosed in a massive steel and concrete containment structure.
"The containment building in new reactor designs, such as the one planned for the UAE, is incredibly strong; with walls of steel-reinforced concrete almost two meters in thickness. It is capable of withstanding the maximum predicted sequence of severe accidents in the UAE, including earthquake, fires and even missile attacks or the direct impact of a plane crash.
"The UAE government has worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as the governments and entities of responsible experienced nations to adopt and implement best practices and guidelines for the development of a civil nuclear program," Al Kaabi said.
"We are committed to continuing that work and will take into consideration any future developments in the area of nuclear safety, in the pursuit of our goal to meet the highest standards of nuclear safety." "In the meantime, we are confident the Japanese authorities will continue to act in the interests of public safety. We offer those at the frontline our thoughts and prayers".
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