If there is one lesson the world can learn from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that theoretical, border-breaching catastrophes can suddenly become very real and very deadly.
Nuclear energy experts have long understood this. They spend their entire careers thinking about and trying to mitigate low-probability, high-impact risks.
After all, nuclear power plants have been around since the 1950s. The roughly 440 nuclear power reactors currently in use today mostly hum along unnoticed – splitting atoms to release energy, generating heat that powers steam turbines to produce electricity.
Put simply, nuclear power reactors boil water – an overwhelmingly uneventful process.
Until the unthinkable happens.
Chernobyl. Fukushima. Both infamous accidents. Both rooted in human error. And to date, the only ones rated as seven – the highest level of severity on a scale created by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Nearly a decade on from Fukushima and three and a half decades after Chernobyl, nuclear power no longer dominates global discussions – in part because many countries are moving away from it, decommissioning reactors, or scrapping or scaling back nuclear energy projects in favour of far cheaper, much safer renewable energy solutions like wind and solar.
But as much of the world looks for ways to move on from 20th-century fission energy and embrace sustainable, more fiscally responsible 21st-century options, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is going nuclear.
In March, the UAE finished loading fuel rods into one of four brand-new nuclear reactors at the Barakah nuclear power station – the first on the Arabian Peninsula.
Years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, Barakah – Arabic for “divine blessing” – has been hampered by construction problems that were not disclosed in a timely fashion, and a paucity of properly trained staff to run the plant.
The UAE is adamant its intentions are peaceful. It has agreed not to enrich its own uranium or reprocess spent fuel, and has signed up to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, significantly enhancing the agency’s inspection capabilities.
It has also secured a coveted 123 Agreement with the United States – a seal of approval from Washington that paves the way for bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation including the transfer of nuclear material, equipment and components.
Still, nuclear energy specialists are sounding the alarm over the potential fallout the UAE reactors could visit upon the Gulf, an ecologically fragile and geopolitically volatile patch of planet Earth.
What they describe is not one potential risk, but layers of them – from an environmental disaster, to theft of radioactive materials, to a nuclear arms race between regional rivals.
Among the concerned is Paul Dorfman, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Institute, University College London and founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group.
Dorfman advises governments on nuclear radiation risks. And governments take his advice.
His verdict on Barakah: “This is the wrong reactor, in the wrong place at the wrong time.”