Nuclear safety emergency plans under way as expert warns of need for readiness

A leading nuclear safety official said yesterday that the UAE has not yet established the infrastructure needed to deal with a nuclear emergency, with just over two years to go before the first of four nuclear reactors at Barakah, in the west of Abu Dhabi, is due to start operation.

Professor Tomihiro Taniguchi, a former deputy director general of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who was in charge of safety there until 2009, says the lessons of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, where he was the top nuclear safety official in the 1990s, have still to be learnt by the worldwide nuclear industry.

“I do not think that in this country capacity to deal with a nuclear emergency is well built yet,” Mr Taniguchi said in an interview with The National. “Experts are well prepared for the normal operations of the nuclear plant but not yet for the incidents of accidents.”

Mr Taniguchi was keynote speaker yesterday at a commemoration in Abu Dhabi of the fourth anniversary of the “triple disaster” Japan suffered when a huge earthquake triggered a massive tsunami, which ultimately caused the Fukushima Dai Ichi nuclear plant to go into meltdown.

It was one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, which has left all of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors still offline.

The disaster caused more than 18,000 deaths and there remains nearly a quarter of million Japanese who have not yet been resettled. But while the nuclear disaster did not cause any direct deaths, its knock-on effects were a major source of displacement and contributed to some deaths.

“At Fukushima, no one died directly but more than 100 patients died when they had to be evacuated from hospitals,” Mr Taniguchi points out. “The major lesson of Fukushima was that it is not confined to the plant site, but affects the whole community and beyond. There was major congestion on the roads and helicopters had to be used as the main means of transport.”

Leading Japanese and UAE nuclear officials followed yesterday’s commemoration with a workshop on The Lessons of Fukushima.

While Mr Taniguchi pointed out that there is still a lot of work to be done to coordinate a plan between the emirate’s National Emergency, Crisis and Disaster Management Authority, (NCEMA) the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, there are plans in place to develop it.

Ian Grant, director of nuclear safety at FANR, said the Barakah plants will not be granted their final licence to start operating without an “emergency preparedness and response” plan fully developed and approved.

“It is something that is being built in the country,” Mr Grant said. “We are in the process of working with NCEMA to create an effective emergency management plan and indeed next week the IAEA will come visit FANR, NCEMA and its partners … The fact that we are having this mission at this point is a measure of our commitment to preparedness and it will give us a list of things to do.”

The UAE’s nuclear programme is being closely watched as the first due to come onstream in the region, where dozens of nuclear plants are at various stages of planning. The first of four South Korean-designed plants is due on in 2017 in Barakah, with the others coming on every subsequent year to 2020, when total capacity is expected to be 5,600 megawatts.

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Anthony McAuley

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