By Geert De Clercq
PARIS/ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Qatar has called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to intervene in a dispute over a $24 billion (£18.1 billion) nuclear power plant which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is building.
Relations between Qatar and its neighbour are already strained after the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Doha in June 2017 over allegations that it supports terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.
In a letter to the IAEA, which was seen by Reuters, Qatar says the Barakah plant poses a serious threat to regional stability and the environment and calls for a framework to ensure the safe operation of nuclear energy in the Gulf.
Qatar said that a radioactive plume from an accidental discharge could reach its capital Doha in five to 13 hours and a radiation leak would have a devastating effect on the region’s water supply because of its reliance on desalination plants.
“Qatar believes that the lack of any international co-operation with neighbouring states regarding disaster planning, health and safety and the protection of the environment pose a serious treat to the stability of the region and its environment,” the letter from Qatar’s Foreign Affairs ministry to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said.
Qatar also said that the technology is relatively untested as there is only one other commercial reactor of this type in operation in South Korea
The UAE said on Wednesday that its nuclear energy programme conforms to IAEA standards and international best practices.
“The United Arab Emirates … adheres to its commitment to the highest standards of nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation,” Hamad Al Kaabi, UAE Permanent Representative to the IAEA, said in a statement to Reuters.
He added that Barakah, the Arab world’s first nuclear plant which was originally set to come online in 2017, was now expected to begin operation by 2020.
The IAEA, a Vienna-based organisation which is the world’s top nuclear safety authority, declined to comment on exchanges with its member states.
Qatar said regional concerns about nuclear safety will be amplified when the Saudi Arabian civil nuclear programme comes on stream. The Kingdom has invited bids from the world’s top nuclear firms to build reactors.
The UAE’s Nawah Energy Company said in May 2018 that Barakah, the world’s largest nuclear plant under construction, should start operations between end 2019 and early 2020.
Barakah is being built by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), but problems with training enough local staff have delayed the startup of its first reactor several times and in November Nawah signed a deal with French utility EDF to operate the plant.
Since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, when a Russian-design reactor in Ukraine spread radiation over large parts of Europe, the potential cross-border impact of nuclear accidents has led to several disputes between neighbours.
Earlier this month, the Barakah plant’s owner Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) said voids had been discovered in the concrete of reactors 2 and 3, although it said these posed no safety risk and would not delay the start-up.
The repair works on the third reactor were due to be completed by the end of last year, while the UAE’s FANR regulator reviews plans to repair smaller voids in unit 2.
(Additional reporting by Stanley Carvalho; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Alexander Smith)