How has the pandemic affected the initial inspection period for Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, and where you are today in terms of the regulatory environment?
Regarding Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, we issued the operating license of Unit 1 to Nawah Energy Company on February 17, and a week after they started loading fresh nuclear fuel into the reactor. That process took about three or four weeks, and now it has closed the reactor. They are testing various systems, such as increasing the temperature and pressure. The pandemic did not prevent Nawah from continuing the tests that had been approved by FANR before granting the operating license. Nawah slowed down the construction of other units slightly, and it focused fully on unit 1, continuing the nuclear commissioning activities in order to achieve operation and generate power to the grid when all test had been done successfully. A few years ago, FANR introduced the practice of the resident inspector, and it has proven to be a good practice. Otherwise, it would have been complicated for us to conduct inspections during the pandemic. With a rotating system of inspectors and regular communication, essentially there has been no delays. They are still continuing the testing phase, but the plant has not produced any electricity yet. We do not know when it will be ready to do so, and we are taking an extremely cautious approach. The safety of the nuclear power plant tops our priority.
What is your perspective on the 10% drop in power generation globally, and how are FANR and the nuclear industry more broadly handling this situation?
We organized a webinar with other representatives and the International Atomic Energy Agency and concluded that the nuclear industry has continued to provide electricity, perhaps with slightly decreased output, regardless of COVID-19. The continuation of power generation from nuclear energy is important in many countries. However, this requires tremendous effort from the nuclear industry and the regulators to work remotely where possible. We have been working on this internally at FANR and will start cooperating with foreign regulators to develop further remote inspections, ensuring the safety of employees, and maintaining compliance in operation of the plants. In the end, nuclear power has to stay safe, in spite of the COVID-19. The nuclear industry is no stranger to crises throughout the years, and this makes us more proactive than most. We have developed business continuity planning and emergency arrangements, and this flexibility and agility is integrated well at FANR. We established the COVID-19 advisory team to move quickly and effectively across areas. This is one strength we have leveraged to manage the pandemic. As previously mentioned, another advantage is our resident inspector system. Moreover, we have advanced e-licensing systems, which address medical and industrial use of radiation, to continue supporting thousands of licensees in the same way as we did before. Another takeaway is that nuclear industry depends on transient workers, and this presents some challenges in the current situation. The supply chain is long, and contractors have many layers, which further emphasize the challenge. The nuclear industry needs to think about how to secure support for the future.
What is your perspective on the environment, energy, and economy trilemma?
Climate change needs to be a priority, and nuclear power provides part of the solution. It provides clean energy as well as increased energy independence and sustainability for a country. Partnership will be increasingly important as we see a dip in nuclear facilities and related vendors. The UAEhas a strong partnership with South Korea, and this has helped us tremendously. We continue to engage significantly with the regulators in South Korea to exchange and share experience. The outcome of the pandemic is to my opinion giving an opportunity for the local industry to develop to support the maintenance of the Brakah nuclear power plant. There should be a strong incentive now for local industry to develop special niches where they can serve the nuclear industry such that we further establish expertise and self-reliance.
How has FANR managed enhancing local capacities in the nuclear sector in these unprecedented times?
As a nuclear regulator in the UAE, we have built a strong foundation and staff, a mix of 70% UAE nationals and 30% expats from various countries. This crisis has shown the importance of Emiratization efforts, and the country has advanced significantly, and rightly so. We have now a strong competency framework-based system, so every staff member at FANR has their own competency profile. Most of our trainings now are internal, and at the moment, some training is done remotely. In the succession planning, we have a scheme to put Emiratis in all leading positions and progressively get them up to speed in expert positions, but this requires a longer timeframe and knowledge transfer through hands-on experience. Several years of operation of the Barakah facility will put us in a much better position in this goal. We have the entire infrastructure in place to support this move, and I am optimistic. We are also pleased with the government's aim to introduce younger professional on board of federal authorities. We have H.E. Maitha Al Gergawi attending board meetings, and she is massively contributing the needs, concerns, and perspectives from the youth side. Those aspects now will also be discussed at the board level in a more competent manner, so we are pleased to have her there.
Looking at other uses of nuclear and radiation technology, what support has FANR emphasized?
The pandemic has not significantly changed our role and activities regarding nuclear energy, as there were already strong systems in place. Of greater concern is the other uses of radiation. We have about 3,000 licenses issued to thousands of companies using radiation, of which 80% are medical clinics and hospitals. Hospitals are generally fairly competent, but we have supported them in establishing temporary hospitals. This has required a great deal of attention from our inspectors. Another area is the industrial application of radiation. The oil industry depends on a number of contractors who circulate in the country with cars loaded with radiation sources. Managing these sources is a matter of life and death, so this is an important aspect. FANR recognizes this, and we have done a great deal of inspections, even nighttime and/or unannounced inspections. The use of radioactive materials makes it a risky industry, and we are ramping up oversight activities while keeping in mind social distancing required by COVID-19. It is important for the public to know that we are there. We normally oversee these activities through unannounced visits as well as an automated system with customs to monitor imports and exports.