The United Arab Emirates is on the fast track to becoming the Arab world’s first nuclear power producing country. This, after the industry’s regulator, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, approved licenses to transport and store nuclear fuel – a final step in a long, arduous process. 

The shipment would be sent by sea from South Korea in the coming weeks before it is inspected on arrival and taken to the Barakah power plant site in the Western Region next month, The National reported

The plant is designed on a Korean model and is able to withstand major natural disasters. 

If everything goes to plan, the nuclear reactor should become operational by May, pending regulatory approval. 

Commenting on the development, Christer Viktorsson, the director general of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), said it was a "major milestone for us because we’ve worked diligently during months to make us convinced that everything is ready to transport and store fuel".

"One of the principles of the UAE’s nuclear power programme is operational transparency," Viktorsson added. "This is an effort by FANR to keep the public informed about the important decisions it is making."

According to Ian Grant, the authority’s deputy director general for operations, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation already had power in the plant and was running systems at the plant to check its equipment.

"Once we have authorization to load the fuel, there would be a period of about another six or seven months of testing and gradually increasing power," he said.

"The current schedule is May but we’re not bound by that schedule … We expect further inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will make sure the fuel is used for peaceful purposes only."

For his part, Hamad Alkaabi, the UAE ambassador to the IAEA, agreed that receiving fuel was a significant milestone.

"The UAE has worked closely with the IAEA safeguards teams to ensure all surveillance and control measures are in place and in line with IAEA requirements at the Barakah nuclear plant," Alkaabi said.

"This step demonstrates that all arrangements and measures in terms of readiness, safety and security have been received and confirmed to be adequate."

Over 200 experts are currently overseeing nuclear safety, security, radiation protection, safeguards and related areas such as emergency preparedness and waste management at FANR.

It's about sustainability

The UAE is a country rich with fossil fuels, so why does its government want to invest in nuclear power? 

Industry officials believe nuclear energy will play a critical role in tackling climate change. How? By helping the nation meet its sustainability commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement, signed in 2015 and ratified in 2016, through nuclear energy. 

ENEC (Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation) believes that by reducing the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the electricity sector, and diversifying energy sources, the commitments can be met. 

Other Arab countries will follow

Over the coming decade, new nuclear power plants are expected to become operational throughout the MENA region, according to the Carnegie Middle East Center

Saudi Arabia will follow the UAE with the “most ambitious nuclear plan, involving sixteen nuclear reactors to be built by 2032.” The first reactor is expected to be operating in 2022.

As for Jordan, the country signed a deal with Russia’s Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation, to build its first nuclear power plant, projected to be operational in 2023. 

Egypt did the same, and will be building four reactors over the next twelve years. 

Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, which has run two research reactors since the early 1990s at Draria and Ain Oussera, are also considering their options. 

But, not all countries are on board. Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, have cancelled their nuclear plans following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident in Japan in 2011.