A nuclear power plant in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates has been connected to the country’s power grid, authorities said Wednesday.
The Barakah nuclear power plant in the Emirates’ far western desert near the border with Saudi Arabia began sending out electricity, according to the state-run WAM news agency.
WAM published a photograph of employees working inside the plant’s control room, though no independent media was there Wednesday to witness the event amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Associated Press for years has been requesting access to the facility.
On July 31, the plant’s first reactor reached what scientists called its “first criticality.” That’s when the nuclear chain reaction within the reactor is self-sustaining.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency and other regulatory bodies have seen and assessed the site. Authorities otherwise have maintained tight control over access to the facility even before the pandemic.
The plant has been considered a target by Yemen’s rival Houthi rebels since December 2017. They claimed then, without offering evidence, to have fired a cruise missile at it, something immediately denied by the UAE.
Plans call for four reactors to be operating at Barakah, which authorities say will provide some 25% of all energy needs in this OPEC-member nation.
The $20 billion Barakah nuclear power plant was built by the Emirates with the help of South Korea. It’s the first nuclear power plant on the Arabian Peninsula.
The US has praised the UAE’s nuclear program for agreeing never to acquire enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, which prevents it from being able to make weapons-grade uranium. The US says that’s a model agreement for other countries seeking nuclear power while also encouraging the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
The plant, located on the Gulf coast west of the UAE’s capital, had been due to come online in late 2017 but faced a number of delays that officials attributed to safety and regulatory requirements.
The UAE has substantial energy reserves, but nuclear and renewables are targeted to contribute around 27% of its electricity needs by 2021.
The UAE says it wants 50% of its energy to be generated by clean sources by 2050.
Amid a tense confrontation between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program, the UAE has said it will not be developing an uranium enrichment program or nuclear reprocessing technologies.
The UAE has repeatedly said its nuclear ambitions are for “peaceful purposes” and moved to dispel any concerns over safety.
Last year, a nuclear expert told the British Telegraph that the nuclear program of the UAE could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and its lack of crucial safety features could lead to a nuclear disaster.
Dr. Paul Dorfman of the Nuclear Consulting Group said the UAE may be hoping to use the program to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal. He also warned that Abu Dhabi’s nuclear plants could be a prime target for terrorists.