The UAE Nuclear Project Is Nearing Operation, but Will It Usher in a Nuclear Power Boom in the Middle East?

Last week, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) moved a step closer to becoming the first Arab country to host a nuclear power project. Unit 1 of the Barakah nuclear power plant received a long-awaited operating license. After a series of additional testing, the reactor will be set to operate for 60 years. The four-unit Barakah plant in Abu Dhabi, supplied by South Korea, is expected to meet about one-quarter of the country’s electricity needs while also helping to avoid around 21 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
Will the successful completion of the second nuclear power project in the Middle East (after the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in September 2011) herald an expansion of nuclear power generation in the region? Besides the additional three units in the UAE, one unit is under construction in Iran. Additional regional players with plans for introducing nuclear power include Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The list is even longer when nuclear aspirant countries less far along in their planning are included.
Policymakers in the region are increasingly drawn to nuclear energy as a partial solution to growing energy demand, increasing global concern over greenhouse gas emissions, and overdependence on fossil fuels in the domestic economies. The share of nuclear energy in the region’s primary energy mix could grow from 0.26 percent today to about 2 percent, according to the International Energy Agency stated policies scenario and ExxonMobil, or as much as 6 percent (Shell’s Sky Scenario) in 2040.
While the regulatory approval announced this week is an important milestone, it has also revealed the importance of capacity-building as part of introducing nuclear power generation in the region. Construction of Barakah Unit 1 was completed in 2018, but a lack of trained local human resources to operate the facility delayed the license approval until now. The Middle East requires investments in not only technology but also regulatory capacity, education, and human resource training for successful utilization of nuclear power generation. And that is a shared interest both inside and outside the region.
Jane Nakano
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program