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Abu Dhabi and its Nuclear Power Plant Folly

April 2010


Abu Dhabi awarded in December 2009 a BOT contract to a South Korean consortium for four 1,400 MW reactors to generate 5,600 MW of electricity. In contradiction with this potentially unsafe venture, the Emirate had announced in February 2008 the construction of Masdar City, a zero carbon, zero waste and a 100% renewable energy-powered. This article examines why and how such contradictory decision are made. It will be argued that Abu Dhabi’s non-representative non-participatory governance, combined with its vast oil riches provides for a politically determined decisions by a poorly informed ruling elite enjoying rentier economic circumstances. Three motives behind such decisions are identified: Enriching the business elite, regional posturing, and egoism. Since Abu Dhabi has succeeded in becoming the headquarters city of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in July 2009, the Agency should ensure that its host city would not become a Trojan horse for the nuclear energy industry. To prove its loyalty to IRENA’s ideals, Abu Dhabi’s nuclear power plant should be scrapped in favor of renewable energy alternatives.



On December 28, 2009 Abu Dhabi awarded a contract[1] to build-operate-and-transfer a 5,600 MW nuclear power plant with four reactors of 1,400 megawatt (MW) each to a consortium of South Korean firms[2] led by Korea Electric Power Corporation and including Hyundai Engineering and Construction, and Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction Company. The project will be completed in three phases between 2017 and 2020 and will cost $20.4 billion[3], though reports by South Korea's semi-official Arirang News quoted a cost figure of $40 billion.[4]
The contradictions
In February 2008, Abu Dhabi announced a futuristic environmentally friendly project called Masdar.[5] Masdar is an Arabic word meaning “source” in English. Costing $22 billion, the Masdar project includes the construction of a six square kilometer zero carbon, zero waste and a 100% renewable energy-powered city, called Masdar City, for about 50,000 residents specializing in the research and application of renewable energy and sustainable technologies.[6]
The electricity for Masdar City will be generated by solar power. Drinking water will be provided through a solar-powered desalination plant. Landscaping and agriculture will be irrigated with treated wastewater produced by the city's water treatment plant.[7]
A part of the Masdar project involves the making of hydrogen power commercially viable. To that end, Masdar is developing in Abu Dhabi a 500MW hydrogen-fired power plant.[8]
Abu Dhadi’s decision to build not one, two, or three, but a four-reactor power plant is the antithesis of the Masdar project. Nuclear power generation and the Masdar ideals are contradiction in terms. The lessons from the disasters at Three Mile Island[9] in the U.S. in 1979 and at Chernobyl[10] in the Ukraine in 1986 were, obviously, ignored in deciding on nuclear energy, just as were the scores of radiation incidents over the past fifty years[11], let alone the challenges to safely dispose of reactors’ spent fuel.[12]
The decision to build a four-reactor plant is also oblivious to the fact that environmentally friendly and safe technologies to harness the renewable energies of the sun and wind, among other means, to generate electricity on a commercial scale are already available. A report by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) demonstrates that in 2008 global power capacity from new renewable energy sources (excluding large hydro) reached 280,000 MW, a 16 percent rise from 2007. Such capacity represents nearly three times the capacity of the United States nuclear sector. Further, the report states that more renewable energy than conventional power capacity was added in 2008 in both the European Union and United States for the first time.
In what follows, a brief expose of the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island[13] and Chernobyl[14] will be made. Next, other reactor incidents over the past few decades, though less serious, will be referenced.[15] Alternative energy resources like solar and wind power will be outlined. Favoring alternative resources will be based on safety and environmental protection; not economic feasibility or KWH cost. Finally, Abu Dhabi’s decision-making process, which led to the making of two contradictory decisions, Masdar and nuclear electricity generation, as well as expensive eye-catching white elephant projects, will be examined.
Three Mile Island accident
On March 28, 1979 a partial reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania severely damaged a brand new reactor—online for only three months. The experts had said that an accident like this could not happen and initially described it as a “minor malfunction”. Within days, 140,000 people had left the area. Luckily, radiation releases from the accident were contained, so that no perceptible effect on cancer incidence was observed, though one team of researchers contested these findings.


Cleanup of the accident took 14 years, from August 1979 to December 1993. Initially, efforts focused on the cleanup and decontamination of the site. Starting in 1985 radioactive fuel was removed. The defueling process was completed in 1990, and the damaged fuel was removed and disposed of in 1993. The contaminated cooling water that leaked into the containment building had seeped into the building’s concrete, leaving the radioactive residue impossible to remove. Cost of the cleanup was around $975 million.


The accident dented the popularity of nuclear energy—51 American nuclear reactors were cancelled from 1980 to 1984.

The Chernobyl disaster
On April 26, 1986 a reactor at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine had a fatal meltdown. A plume was released into the atmosphere containing four hundred times more radioactive fallout than had been by the atomic atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Rain contaminated with radioactive material fell as far away as Ireland. 600,000 people were highly exposed to radiation. Over 336,000 people were evacuated and resettled. Farming and other types of agricultural industry would be dangerous for at least 200 years in a large area. It will be 20,000 years before the site of the meltdown will be safe.
While Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have been the most serious nuclear accidents thus far, scores of less seriousnuclear and radiation accidents[16] had afflicted this industry. For a listing of more accidents, visit Wikipedia’s civilian nuclear accidents[17] and nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents.[18]

The case for abandoning nuclear power 

The development in recent years of safe and environmentally friendly renewable resources of energy to generate electricity from the sun and wind, among other means, has raised the standards of safety and environmental protection for the nuclear power industry.


Given the catastrophic consequences on the life and well being of millions of people in the event of a major reactor accident nuclear power plants must be 100% safe, not only 99.99%. However, an absolute level of safety is impossible to achieve because all things mechanical, especially as complicated as nuclear power plants, are apt to break down at some point.
There cannot be disagreement among proponents and opponents of nuclear energy regarding the catastrophic consequences of a major reactor accident. The disagreement, however, surrounds the probability that such an accident might materialize. Evaluating such probability is a subjective matter. The nuclear power industry claims that reactor design since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents has improved and that nuclear energy is now both safe and environmentally friendly. Opponents of nuclear energy reject these claims. They believe that all things mechanical are likely to break down at some point due to mechanical reasons or human error. Opponents of nuclear energy believe that regardless of how infinitesimal the probability might be of a major accident materializing, discounting the monumental losses that would result from such an accident by the infinitesimally tiny probability of the accident occurring would still leave a prohibitively high potential loss to contend with.

Nuclear reactors are not like building golf courses, ice-skating rinks, seven-star hotels, or the world’s largest theme park. In case of a major nuclear accident the UAE and its neighbours would suffer horribly. They do not possess, indeed no country anywhere possesses, enough hospitals, surgeons, and scientists, etc. to cope with a sudden and unexpected flood of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of casualties. That a flash flooding incident[19] in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on November 25, 2009 killed 122 persons with 37 missing should focus the mind on the impending dangers from Abu Dhabi’s potentially disastrous four-reactor plant.

Radioactive accident might disable desalination plants

The possibility must not be ruled out that a major radiation leak might force the closure of some, possibly all, of the desalination plants that dot the shores of the Eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. These plants supply drinking and household water to the entire populations of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and the cities and towns of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia such as Dammam and Al-Khobar plus the cities and towns of the Qaseem region and the capital city, Riyadh. If such an accident ever occurs, the scale of the resulting human calamity will be difficult to imagine. Possibly 25 million people could be affected. They use some 2.5 billion cubic meters per annum of desalinated water, or seven million cubic meters per day for drinking and household purposes. To put such a daily volume in perspective, it is equivalent to the combined cargos of 14 super-tankers of 500,000 tons each. No emergency preparedness can possibly deliver even a quarter of such a massive volume on a daily basis for extended periods of time. Indeed, not only that existing water supplies would be radioactive but also the tanker deliveries would become contaminated once they reach the affected areas. Evacuation of millions of people might become necessary, a nightmare of epic proportions in an area bordered by the forbidding Empty Quarter Desert and the sea. As to where these millions might go, that is a whole different challenge to deal with.


At a minimum, Abu Dhabi should seek regional approval to an emergency preparedness plan to deal with a worst-case scenario of a reactor accident.


The challenge of nuclear waste
Additionally, there is the toxic waste from Abu Dhabi’s four new reactors. Even if all the reactors operated safely throughout their useful life, there is the grim task of safely disposing with toxic waste. Reactor’s waste is radioactive and must be isolated from the biosphere until the radioactivity has diminished to a safe level. Special physical, chemical, and thermal characteristics must be met before a burial site is deemed suitable to entomb the decaying radioactive waste for the hundreds of thousands of years[20], possibly, the million years, required for the waste to become safe.[21]


Meanwhile, during the long sweep of the millennia an earthquake, a volcano, or some other natural disaster might force the decaying waste to the Earth’s surface. Already, disturbing nuclear waste accidents have occurred.[22] For example, in the former Soviet Union, waste stored in Lake Karachay was blown over the area during a dust storm after the lake had partly dried out. At Maxey Flat, a low-level radioactive waste facility located in Kentucky, containment trenches covered with dirt, instead of steel or cement, collapsed under heavy rainfall into the trenches and filled with water and became radioactive. In Italy, several radioactive waste deposits let material flow into river water, thus contaminating water for domestic use. In France, at the Areva plant in Tricastin, it was reported that during a draining operation, liquid containing untreated uranium overflowed out of a faulty tank and about 75 kg of the radioactive material seeped into the ground and, from there, into two rivers nearby.


Additionally, the claim that nuclear energy is clean energy is not entirely true. The claim ignores the CO2 footprint created from the processes that turn uranium ore into nuclear fuel and then dispensing with the radioactive waste.
As such, it would be the height of folly for Abu Dhabi to pursue nuclear energy while safe and environmentally friendly solar and wind power are available on a commercial scale. Safe and environmentally friendly solar and wind power plants could readily replace the potentially disastrous 5,600 MW of Abu Dhabi’s four reactors. Even if, and this is a big if, the cost of nuclear electricity is a fraction of the cost of alternative technologies (it is doubtful whether such is the case when all cost elements plus the negative and positive externalities of production and consumption are considered) the nuclear option should not be considered. At issue here is people’s safety, wellbeing, and environmental protection, not economics or finance.
A number of renewable resources to generate electricity are available today on a commercial scale such as geothermal, sea waves, solar, wind, among others. In what follows, a brief description of two renewable resources will be made. The first is solar power. The second is wind power. The choice of these two resources is due to the availability of both in great abundance in the Middle East in general, the Arabian Peninsula and the UAE in particular.
Solar power
Solar power is the generation of electricity from sunlight. Solar power has the potential to provide 1,000 times current world’s energy consumption.[23] The solar power industry is growing rapidly with almost 14,000 MW to be added globally through 2014.[24]
Using a technology known as Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), Solar Energy Generating Systems SEGS built in California’s Mojave Desert the world’s largest commercially successful solar power generating network. SEGS is composed of nine plants built between 1984 and 1990 with total capacity of 354 MW. CSP relies on mirrors or lenses to heat water to drive steam generators.
Recently, photovoltaic (PV) technology was introduced on a commercial scale. PV cells produce electricity as a result of a chemical reaction that occurs when sunlight hits the PV cells. PV cells are constructed of two thin layers of semi-conducting materials, usually silicon, that have been treated with certain chemicals. When sunlight hits the PV cells, it creates an electric field across the two layers.
As of October 2009, the largest PV power plant was the Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park in Spain, a 60 MW facility (meets the electricity needs of more than 40,000 homes). Larger PV power stations are planned such as the 550 MW Topaz Solar Farm, in California (expected to cost about $1 billion), and the 600 MW Rancho Cielo Solar Farm in New Mexico (expected to cost $840 million).
To put 600 MW-capacity in perspective, two of the Rancho Cielo safe and environmentally friendly plants could produce 86 percent of the capacity of one 1,400 MW of Abu Dhabi’s potentially dangerous four nuclear reactors. Although cost is not an issue here, it is compelling, however, to note that the capacity of Abu Dhabi’s 5,600 MW nuclear power plant can possibly be produced using solar power plants of the Topaz Farm or the Cielo Farm type for around $10 billion, as compared to $20.4 billion to $40 billion (see above).
On the individual dwelling level, solar hot water in Germany set record growth in 2008, with over 200,000 systems installed.[25]

Wind power

Wind power is the conversion of wind energy using wind turbines to make electricity. World wind generation capacity more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2006, doubling about every three years. Existing wind power capacity grew by 29 percent in 2008. As of May 2009, eighty countries around the world were using wind power on a commercial basis. By 2010, the World Wind Energy Association expects 160,000 MW of capacity to be installed worldwide.[26] A comprehensive study in 2005 published in the Journal of Geophysical Research found that wind power could satisfy over seven times the world’s electricity needs.[27]


Several countries have already achieved relatively high levels of wind power generation, such as 19% of electricity production in Denmark, 13% in Spain and Portugal, and 7% in Germany and the Republic of Ireland in 2008.
U.S. Department of Energy have concluded that wind harvested in Texas, Kansas, and North Dakota could provide enough electricity to power the entire country.[28] The New York Times reported on April 10, 2010 that a record 10,010 MW of new wind capacity was installed in the United States in 2009, accounting for 39 percent of new electrical generation, the American Wind Energy Association said in its annual report. That raises the total wind energy capacity in the U.S. to more than 35,000 MW, or enough electricity to keep the lights on in 9.7 million homes. “Over the past five years, wind power and other renewable energy technologies, combined with natural gas, have provided over 90 percent of all new generating capacity in the U.S.” the report stated.

In the United Kingdom, by 2020 a third of the country’s electricity is expected to be generated using wind power—between 33,000 MW and 35,000 MW. Such capacity equals to 600% of the capacity of Abu Dhabi’s four nuclear driven generators, which will go on line about the same time in 2020. The European Union has set a target of generating 20 percent of EU’s overall energy supply from renewable sources by 2020.[29]


China’s total wind power capacity doubled in 2008 for the fourth year running,[30] reaching 22,500 MW by end of 2009 and could surpass 30,000 MW by end of 2010.[31] India reached 11,000 MW in 2009.[32]

How was Abu Dhabi’s decision to pursue nuclear power made?

That Abu Dhabi opted for a potentially unsafe and environmentally damaging nuclear power in the age of safe and environmentally friendly solar and wind power is inexplicable. That Abu Dhabi unilaterally decides to expose its citizens and residents as well as tens of millions of people in neighbouring countries to the potential dangers of four nuclear reactors is reprehensible. How and what kind of decision-making processes produce such potentially disastrous decisions? To answer, Abu Dhabi’s style of national governance should be considered.
Abu Dhabi’s governance is autocratic, non-representative, and non-participatory. The Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, like other Arab kings, emirs, sultans, and presidents is an absolute tribal/clan ruler. The oil economy combined with the narrowness of Abu Dhabi’s national decision-making coalition provides the Emirate’s decision-making context. The contract to import four reactors is a case of a politically determined energy policy with the negative consequences of a poorly informed self-absorbed ruling elite enjoying rentier economic circumstances.
In pursuit of tens of billions of dollars in export revenues, foreign suppliers, in this case of nuclear power plant manufacturers, supported by their governments and politicians, closely associate themselves with the political and business elites in Arab oil exporting countries in general, including Abu Dhabi. Unsafe and potentially disastrous schemes such as nuclear reactors are attractively packaged and propagated with nationalistic slogans. In the absence of political parties, a free press, environmental groups, or any other form of concerned groups, such as non-partisan non-governmental organizations, it is impossible to introduce a sound balancing economic or environmental perspective into energy policy. In the absence of such egalitarian bodies it is impossible to remind the ruler and his coteries that to inflict the potential dangers of four nuclear reactors on his own people and neighbors in order to generate electricity in the age of safe and environmentally friendly solar and wind power is callous and irresponsible.

There has been no effective dissent in Abu Dhabi against nuclear power. Nor were there calls to explain the contradiction between the environmentally friendly Masdar project and the Emirate’s potentially disastrous nuclear power project. Instead, government propagandists and apologists are hard at work turning a folly into an amazing leap forward and hypocritically focusing a worldwide public relations campaign on the virtues of Masdar and the Emirate’s commitment to help mankind.
What might lurk behind Abu Dhabi’s decision to import four nuclear reactors instead of importing solar and wind power plants? Three motives may be discerned:
Enriching the business elite
The business elite in the UAE, similar to those in the rest of GCC states and the wider Arab world, supports its ruler in return for a business environment conducive to making money. The Abu Dhabi merchant families import myriads of goods, represent foreign companies, engage in joint ventures with outside partners, manufacture light goods, etc. In conducting these businesses, the merchants enjoy privileges like beneficial monetary, fiscal and foreign exchange policies, protection from foreign competition, and a labor law that tolerates slave-like treatment of foreign workers in low wages, debilitating work conditions, and pathetic living standards, without the right to form a labor union or take a strike action.
Merchant families are important for the Emirate’s internal security. 80 percent of the estimated six million population of the UAE is foreign laborers employed mostly by the business sector. Given that the government does not allow political, social, and labor organizations to exist, employers become the eyes and ears of an elaborate internal security force; a first line of defense against political dissent and labor unrest.
It is safe to consider that a certain proportion of the $20 billion to $40 billion nuclear power plant contract, as well as the 20 billion Masdar project, among other government schemes, will benefit Abu Dhabi’s merchants. Typically, foreign companies work locally through local sponsors in return for hefty commissions to the sponsors. Also, while foreign companies are the primary contractors there will be a good deal of sub-contract work for local companies to perform.
Regional posturing

The second motive behind Abu Dhabi’s decision to import one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants is to make a political statement directed at GCC states, the Middle East in general, but especially Iran. While Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant has one 1,000 MW reactor, Abu Dhabi will have four 1,400 MW reactors!

The UAE is locked in a dispute with Iran over three small islands near the Straight of Hormuz: Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. The islands were invaded on November 30, 1971 by the Shah’s forces and forcibly seized. Sharjah claims Abu Musa. Ras Al-Khaymah claims Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. Two branches of the Al-Qasimi tribe have ruled Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaymah, now part of the United Arab Emirates. The GCC repeatedly declared support for the UAE’s claim to the islands. Bilateral talks between the UAE and Iran in 1992 failed. The UAE have attempted to bring the dispute before the International Court of Justice but Iran refuses to do so. The UAE argue that the islands were under the control of Al-Qasimi sheikhs, whose rights were then inherited by the UAE after the 1971 union that created the UAE. Iran counters by stating that the Al-Qasimi rulers during a crucial part of the 19th century were actually based on the Iranian, not the Arab, coast and had thus become Persian subjects.
Ever since the United States eliminated Iran’s two big enemies; Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Shi’a Iran have become a threat to the Sunni ruling families in the GCC region, especially in those places with large Shi’a communities. Given Abu Dhabi’s inability, despite its vast riches, to challenge Tehran over the loss of the three islands, a nuclear power plant that dwarfs in size the Bushehr plant might go a certain way towards restoring some of the lost pride felt in the UAE.
The third motive behind Abu Dhabi’s contradictory decisions is egoism. Abu Dhabi’s importation of four nuclear reactors may be seen as a way for its leaders to flaunt the vast financial reserves their Emirate has accumulated in recent years and assert itself on the regional and the international stages.


For example, in a clear challenge to Saudi Arabia and in order to share the limelight with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi was forceful in its effort to become the headquarters city of the proposed Gulf Monetary Union, or GCC’s Central Bank. When Riyadh won the contest on May 6, 2009, the UAE quit the proposed union altogether on May 21, 2009.[33]
Egoism may also explain Abu Dhabi’s keen interest in becomingthe Middle East’s first city to host the headquarters of an international organization; namely, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Abu Dhabi’s eagerness to secure for itself the location of IRENA’s headquarters may even explain the Emirate’s decision to build the environmentally friendly Masdar project. Masdar was announced in February 2008. A few months later, in January 2009, IRENA was founded. In July 2009, after a well-orchestrated campaign, citing Masdar as the proof of its commitment to renewable energy in addition to a generous financial package to sweeten the deal, Abu Dhabi won the vote for the Agency’s secretariat headquarters city. Bonn, Germany, was given the site of an IRENA Centre for Science and Technology, and Vienna, Austria was given the site of an IRENA liaison office for cooperation with other organizations active in the field of renewable energy.
Abu Dhabi offered IRENA a package worth $136 million, including a $22 million headquarters building in Masdar City that will be “energy positive” with a solar PV roof, rent free for life, plus $3 million annually for facility operations, plus $50 million fund for renewable energy projects in the developing countries, plus scholarships and a host of other features.[34]
In December 2009, five months after becoming IRENA’s headquarter city, Abu Dhabi declared its nuclear power plant.

Nuclear energy is the antithesis of IRENA’s ideals, reflected in its mission statement:

“To promote the widespread and increased adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy. IRENA’s Member States pledge to advance renewables in their own national policies and programs, and to promote, both domestically and through international cooperation, the transition to a sustainable and secure energy supply.”[35]

The challenge facing renewable energy

Being IRENA’s headquarters city, Abu Dhabi must find itself in an awkward position, practicing the opposite of what it is supposed to preach. Although, Abu Dhabi is obligated to promote IRENA’s objectives faithfully and vigorously it is also in the process of importing from South Korea a huge state-of-the-art nuclear power plant that will certainly become a showcase for the nuclear power industry to promote sales. Abu Dhabi’s parable here is like a church, or a mosque, that has in the basement a brothel or a casino.


IRENA faces a major challenge from the nuclear power industry (and the oil industry as well). The challenge could derail IRENA’s mission. The coalition of nuclear industry’s executives, lobbyists, and politicians among IRENA’s industrialized members who are heavily invested in selling nuclear power plants, particularly to Arab states these days, would want to protect the interests of their reactor manufacturing companies.


To prove its genuine commitment to IRENA’s ideals of renewable energy Abu Dhabi’s nuclear power plant should be scrapped in favour of renewable energy power plants. IRENA should stop Abu Dhabi from becoming a Trojan Horse in its own backyard.
Egoism may further explain Abu Dhabi's eye-catching projects. Here are three examples:

The first is the world’s most expensively constructed hotel. Opened in 2005, the Abu Dhabi government-owned Emirates Palace cost $3 billion.[36] It has an entrance arch just a shade smaller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and a lobby-atrium with a dome larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, topped by a two-meter finial made of solid gold.[37]
The second is a Louvre Museum clone in Abu Dhabi to be completed by 2012. A thirty-year agreement for a Louvre in Abu Dhabi was announced on March 7, 2007. Abu Dhabi paid $525 million to be associated with the Louvre name, and an additional $747 million in exchange for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice plus between 83 million and 108 million for a museum building.[38]
The third is the world’s largest indoor theme park at a cost of $40 billion.[39] The highlight of this development is theYas Island Circuit, which hosts the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.[40]

It may be said that Abu Dhabi’s Masdar project, its gigantic nuclear power plant, IRENA’s headquarters city, and the failed attempt to host the GCC’s Central Bank are all expressions of the same mind-set that built the Emirates Palace Hotel, is cloning the Louvre, and building the Yas Island theme park.


[18] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_nuclear_disasters_and_radioactive_incidents

[19] http://archive.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=130636&d=3&m=1&y=2010

[21] http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/nuclear/nuclear-waste-how-long-will-it-take
[24] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_solar_thermal_power_stations#cite_note-68