Three days after an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale critically damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP), the president of South Korea and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi attended a ground-breaking ceremony of the Braka NPP in the United Arab Emirates; it is the first of four to be built under a $20 billion contract inked in 2009 between the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and a consortium of South Korean and American companies.
The inauguration celebration could hardly have been more inopportune. In the course of a week the incident at the Fukushima NPP went from being rated four on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, “an accident with local consequences,” to level five, “an accident with wider consequences.” The Fukushima disaster is the only level five rating since the Three Mile Island meltdown in the United States in 1979. There has only been one level seven, the highest rating, in Chernobyl in 1986, which, according to research by New York’s Academy of Sciences published last year, resulted in the deaths of 985,000 people from cancer and related diseases.
The global “nuclear renaissance” touted just a few years ago seems far less secure, a fact reflected in investor sentiment: uranium prices on the spot market following the Japanese calamity plunged 27 percent to $50 per pound as countries started reconsidering the construction of new NPPs.
If there were ever a time to rethink nuclear power it is now, certainly before the dozen Middle Eastern and North African countries that have signed nuclear cooperation agreements start building NPPs. And the risks need to be seriously assessed, not just in terms of security, the logistics of storing spent fuel for thousands of years and so on, but also in terms of earthquake risk.
The Middle East is chock full of tectonic plates, with the Arabian plate in the middle flanked by the Eurasian, African and Indian plates. One of the most seismically active continental regions on earth is just across the sea from the United Arab Emirates, the Zagros Thrust in Iran. Of equal concern is the fact that modern systems to measure seismic activity have only recently been introduced in Saudi Arabia and Oman, while the UAE set one up just this year.
While there is little chance of a tsunami, an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.1 shook the emirate of Fujairah in 2002, and repeated seismic activity in the locality suggests that other, more sizable earthquakes are likely in the future. “When?” is of course the question, and the world can only hope that those building NPPs will do so with the worst-case scenario in mind; the Fukushima NPP was built at a time when the thought of it having to withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake was considered unlikely.
Braka was chosen as the site for the UAE’s first NPP as it is “an area with a very low probability of earthquakes — what is called low seismicity,” Ambassador Hamad al-Kaabi, UAE Permanent Representative to the IAEA, told the press after the Fukushima disaster. Yet it is not just unexpected earthquakes that are a concern when it comes to nuclear power. Transparency has been a major issue in the nuclear industry globally; in a 2008 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, a Japanese politician said the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the department responsible for nuclear energy, has been “covering up nuclear accidents and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry.”
The UAE hardly has a sterling reputation for transparency and accountability — think back to how the Dubai debt imbroglio was handled in 2009. If the Japanese, with 54 nuclear reactors, cannot be relied upon to be transparent, can we be sure the UAE will be?
Let us hope the UAE’s decision to go ahead with nuclear power, just as news of Fukushima’s fallout was dominating headlines, will not be retold through history as the epitomic example of a warning unheeded.
Paul Cochrane is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services