Barely a month ago, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation ENEC) issued an upbeat
media release celebrating the completion of main concrete works and heavy equipment
lifting at Barakah Nuclear Energy plant - which uses the state-of-the-art APR1400 design
- in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi.
(ENEC Achieves Historic Milestone in Construction of Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant,
media release, 14 November 2018;
ENEC stressed how “more than 2.3 million cubic meters of concrete [had been] poured
and approximately 250,000 metric tons of rebar (reinforcing steel) installed at Barakah
Nuclear Energy Plant.”
“These milestones are the result of the exceptional partnership between ENEC and its
Prime Contractor and Joint Venture partner KEPCO (Korea Electric Power Corporation
KEPCO) with the dedication and expertise of our UAE Nationals and international
experts,” added Eng. Al Hammadi, Chief Executive Officer of ENEC.
But behind the scenes, the reality was different. The Barakah plant, being built by a
South Korean consortium including Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), Hyundai
Engineering & Construction, Samsung C&T, and Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction,
was facing serious difficulties. Barakah Unit 1 has still not received an operating licence
and is now predicted to begin commercial operation in 2020, some three years later than
Nearly a month earlier, in mid-October, the Korean media had revealed significant
problems had been discovered in the poured concrete, with cracks emerging in the
containment buildings of two out of the 4 reactor units.(KEPCO undergoes repairs for
cracks in nuclear reactor containment buildings in UAE
http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_business/866228.html; Hani News, 17 October 2018)
The Hankyoreh (‘One nation news’reported that the Korean parent company had been
carrying out repair work after the discovery of cracks.
During a parliamentary audit by the Trade, Industry, Energy, SMEs and Startups
Committee of the Korean National Assembly (Parliament) on 16 October, the CEO
of KEPCO, Kim Jong-gap under interrogation by Democratic Party lawmaker Woo
Won-shik revealed that “[Construction] has been halted on the UAE power plants
because of the discovery of cracks.” Mr Kim also explained that South Korea’s low
rate of nuclear power usage over the past one to two years had been due to a need
for repair to cracks and corroded plates resulting from poor construction in the past.
Hankyoreh revealed that cracks had first been discovered at Barakah in August 2017,
with the first being found in the containment building for the No. 3 unit. A subsequent
examination was conducted on the buildings for the No. 1, 2, and 4 reactor units,
resulting in the discovery of cracks in all of them, the newspaper reported.
This extent of cracking was denied in an official statement from ENEC issued on 4 December. (“Quality Assurance in Action at Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, https://www.enec.gov.ae/news/announcements/quality-assurance-in-action-at-barakah-nuclear-energy-plant/), claiming no cracks (described as “voids”) had been identified in units I and 4, with only “minor” voids discovered in unit 2, but admitted that “concrete voids were identified during the construction phase of Unit 3 ..detected by KEPCO , and verified by ENEC.”
ENEC added that as the Construction License holder, it had officially notified the UAE nuclear regulator, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) and “a thorough investigation process commenced” involving “engagement from KEPCO and the Hyundai Samsung Joint Venture (HSJV), as well as an independent expert on concrete contracted by ENEC, to verify the results of the investigation.”
Throughout the process, FANR has been regularly updated, and reviewed the repair plan and repair works on Unit 3, which are scheduled for completion by the end of 2018.
Last week, the US-based specialist newsletter, Energy Intelligence (“Newbuild: Has Barakah Lost Its Magic”? Energy Intelligence, 7 December 2018,
http://www.energyintel.com/pages/eig_article.aspx?DocId=1018264&NLID=104, through its reporters Stephanie Cooke in Washington and Oliver Klaus in Dubai, took the story forward with exclusive new revelations after a month-long investigation.
E.I. reported that ENEC's 4 December press statement had only released after weeks of email exchanges between the newsletter’s reporters and ENEC over the nature and extent of the problem.
Uncorrected cracking in the containment building of any nuclear reactor risks a radiological release to the atmosphere, particularly in the event of a severe accident. But E.I stresses that even if the cracks are easily and quickly repaired, their existence reveals construction problems that went unmentioned in ENEC's previous statements.
However cracking in the thick pre-stressed, steel-lined concrete wall of the containment building of Unit 3 could be more serious than ENEC is letting on, according to E.I’s investigation., The director-general of the UAE's Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), Christer Viktorsson told the newsletter exclusively in an interview on 21st November that he had in fact learned about the problem last year after testing at the unit revealed grease leaking out of the wall, but conceded the safety regulator initially was not informed of the discovery.
Grease is the word
An anonymous nuclear industry expert told E.I. reactor containment buildings typically include heavy-duty metal cables, known as tendons - that run through long steel-lined channels inside the exterior wall,” and are on reels so they can be winched up or down to adjust the tension. "Those tendons have to be periodically inspected during plant operation; the reels are used to create tension and are under a great deal of stress. Typically the channels contain a reservoir of grease to make them more easy to winch up and down."
Mr Viktorsson added that grease "started to come out in unexpected places" and workers "saw that there was a void in the containment in a certain place." Asked if the problem at Unit 3 was reported to the IAB, Viktorsson said, "No. To us, with an action plan. So they said 'we will fix this of course'; so we followed it and made sure that it's being corrected." Viktorsson stressed "this is of course something that they need to fix before we give them an operating license."
ENEC claimed in an email sent to E.I. on 23 October that FANR had been officially notified "and a thorough investigation commenced, “ adding “Throughout the process, FANR has been regularly updated, and reviewed the repair plan and repair works on Unit 3…"
While Enec claimed that this work is "not anticipated to impact the project schedule" the unnamed industry expert argued that the few details provided suggest the possibility of a leakage path from inside the cable channel, through the steel liner, and out to the concrete exterior
In a critical observation, E.I concluded “With the cracking problems and other technical issues posing challenges for the project's developers, the aura of a smoothly run project that has long surrounded the [Barakah plant] may be fading. These issues are in stark contrast to the numerous glowing progress reports by both ENEC and Abu Dhabi's International Advisory Board (IAB), which was disbanded after a final meeting in October 2017 on the basis that its mandate to lead the UAE "through the technical and political complexities of the concept and construction phases" of the project had been fulfilled. It now seems clear that the technical complexities proved greater than anticipated, and were not fully understood by the board at the time it decided its mission was complete.”
Korean cracks foreshadowed UAE problem
After cracks were discovered at numerous nuclear power plants in South Korea –at first at the Hanbit 2 plant – KHNP and the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) explained that the “construction capabilities were not up to par two decades ago.”
The UAE initially decided to have the plant built using South Korean methods, adopting the model of the Shin-Kori 3 and 4 reactors using the APR1400. In South Korea, the APR1400 is used with Shin Kori reactors 3 to 6 and Shin Hanul reactors 1 and 2.
“It’s shocking to learn cracks were discovered even at the state-of-the-art UAE nuclear power plant,” said Woo Won-shik, adding that an “investigation of the Shin Kori 3 and 4 reactors used as a pilot model for the UAE plant appears unavoidable,” Hankyoreh reported.
Reuters reported on 22 November that French energy group EDF (and Nawah Energy - a JV subsidiary in charge of operations for preparation to operate, pending regulatory approval - have signed a deal to operate and maintain the delayed Barakah power plant. (“EDF, UAE's Nawah sign deal on operating Barakah nuclear plant,” https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-emirates-nuclearpower-edf/edf-uaes-nawah-sign-deal-on-operating-barakah-nuclear-plant-idUKKCN1NR1MO?rpc=401&)
ENEC failed to respond to a request for comment for this report.
In December 2006 the six member states of the GCC – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman – announced that the Council was commissioning a study on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. France agreed to work with them on this, and Iran pledged assistance with nuclear technology.
In February 2007 the six states agreed with the IAEA to cooperate on a feasibility study for a regional nuclear power and desalination program. Saudi Arabia was leading the investigation. Regional electricity grid integration is progressing.
The six nations are all signatories of the NPT and the UAE ratified a safeguards agreement with IAEA in 2003. In mid-2008 it appointed an ambassador to IAEA.
Nuclear power program in the UAE
The UAE in 2015 produced 127 TWh of electricity, all from fossil fuels – 125.5 TWh natural gas, and 1.5 TWh oil. There were no imports and virtually no exportsa. Electricity demand is growing and the country relies entirely on electricity to provide its potable water, by desalination.
In April 2008 the UAE independently published a comprehensive policy on nuclear energy. This projected escalating electricity demand from 15.5 GWe in 2008 to over 40 GWe in 2020, with natural gas supplies sufficient for only half of this. Imported coal was dismissed as an option due to environmental and energy security implications. Renewables would be able to supply only 6-7% of the needed power by 2020.
Other related materials
UAE’s Barakah nuclear energy plant unit 2 passes pre-operational test
Power Magazine, 7 August 2018
UAE’s Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) has announced the completion of hot functional testing (HFT) on unit 2 of the Barakah nuclear energy plant.
For this test, ENEC has worked closely with the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), which is the joint venture (JV) partner as well as the prime contractor for the Barakah project.
ENEC noted that the pre-operational testing process was carried out by incorporating all lessons learned from the same test on unit 1 in order to achieve international standards of quality, safety and efficiency.
"By incorporating the lessons learned from the same tests on unit 1, we continue to establish Barakah as the benchmark for new nuclear construction projects worldwide."
The HFT was conducted under the observation of the UAE’s independent nuclear regulatory body Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR).
During the test, components were checked for thermal expansion, vibration and wear. The results demonstrated that all systems performed in accordance with the quality and safety standards under normal operating conditions.
ENEC CEO Mohamed Al Hammadi said: “We are proud to have maintained our track record of safety and efficiency with the successful completion of hot functional testing on unit 2.
“By incorporating the lessons learned from the same tests on unit 1, we continue to establish Barakah as the benchmark for new nuclear construction projects worldwide.
“Keeping construction progress approximately one year apart for each of the units at Barakah makes it possible for us to implement all lessons learned from one unit to the subsequent ones, in line with international best practices in the management of megaprojects.”
Construction works on unit 2 of the Barakah nuclear energy plant began in April 2013, one year after unit 1.
Unit 1 has been handed over to Nawah Energy Company (Nawah), a JV subsidiary in charge of operations for preparation to operate, pending regulatory approval.
Barakah nuclear energy plant, which features four units, is reported to have progressing safely and steadily and will deliver safe, clean, reliable and efficient electricity to the UAE grid.