Even in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, nuclear energy is seen as a go-to technology. That’s the conclusion experts in the United Arab Emirates came to in 2008 as they considered the demands their expanding economy would place on long-term energy capacity. Nuclear energy, they decided, must be considered a critical element in the UAE energy supply mix to meet projected demand.
And the UAE wasn’t alone in its thinking; it wasn’t long before a handful of other Middle Eastern nations signaled their interest in nuclear energy as well.
Sandia’s Amir Mohagheghi (6821), who travels to the region extensively, had seen this coming. The nuclear scientist began to sketch out ideas for establishing a responsible nuclear energy culture in the region to ensure that proper safety, safeguards, and security policies were adopted along with the technology.
Nearly three years later, the most visible milestone in the program that eventually unfolded around Amir’s ideas was achieved in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute (GNEII — pronounced “genie”) opened last Sunday with a pilot class of 11 professionals and the signing, by Div. 6000 VP Jill Hruby, of the official agreement naming Sandia an institute sponsor. GNEII is a cornerstone development in the global nuclear security initiatives under the International, Homeland, and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit, which Jill oversees.
“The opening of the institute represented more than just the hard work and long hours by the team to make this idea a reality. It is also a first major step forward in the safe and responsible expansion of an energy source more and more nations are finding compelling to ensure sustainable economic growth,” Amir says.
GNEII represents a three-way sponsorship by Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science Technology and Research, Sandia, and the Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute (NSSPI) at Texas A&M University. Recognizing the value of such an institute almost immediately, the government of the United Arab Emirates and Khalifa University signed on to serve as host. Financial sponsorship of GNEII comes from Khalifa University, NNSA’s Office of Nonproliferation and International Security (NA-24), and the Department of State’s Office of Partnership for Nuclear Security. The Texas A&M connection came via Adam Williams (6812), the GNEII project lead. A Texas A&M graduate, Adam was intrigued by Amir’s proposals and signed on in mid-2008 to assist in the effort. As he began to understand the project even more, it became clear to him that his alma mater would be a terrific project partner on this side of the globe.
Three core principles
Adam, who participated in many of the exploratory conversations throughout the Middle East, says the GNEII team started out with three core principles that had to be met for the project to be a success:
- Demand-driven — Regional governments and institutions had to support this program financially and with encouragement;
- Indigenous — The program would have to transition to local control within five years; and,
- Regional — Professionals from across the Middle East would be able to participate in the program regardless of where the physical institute was based.
“Nuclear energy programs are complex and there are many steps to establishing a responsible nuclear program,” Adam says. ”Among the local ranks in the Middle East, few understood all facets. Our goal is to provide a solid start for a comprehensive, complete, and coherent introduction to a responsible nuclear energy program so the idea of a ‘Middle Eastern nuclear energy program’ won’t keep people up at night.”
The idea took off like a rocket, and the biggest stumbling block in establishing GNEII was balancing the UAE’s desired aggressive pace of development with the realities of conducting a complex program. Adam says he spent most of 2010 traveling to and from the Middle East — as well as around the US — advertising and marketing the program as well as discussing the curriculum, the logistics, the student enrollment, the management and oversight structure, and other operational project details.
While the work was daunting, the project represented significant new opportunities for nuclear energy education, Adam says. In the US — and in other more mature nuclear energy programs — safety, safeguards, and security represent discrete disciplines and it’s sometimes a challenge to convince specialists to work together. Developing a brand-new program from the ground up was a chance to build awareness and integration of these disciplines into the foundation of nuclear energy programs.
Nonproliferation a key element
“We wanted to weave the theme of integration throughout the curriculum,” Adam says.
Working together, Sandia and NSSPI developed a 12-week academic program — covering nuclear energy basics (systems thinking, basic nuclear-related physics, the nuclear fuel cycle, nonproliferation issues, power plant operations, radiological materials management, and nuclear energy safety, safeguards, and security) — followed by an independent research project that will provide graduates with a professional certificate from Khalifa University. It seeks entry- and mid-level policymakers, government officials, and energy program executives and emphasizes broad concepts in nuclear energy safety, safeguards, and security culture; it does not attempt to train plant operators. Ultimately, the curriculum will provide the initial credits toward a master’s degree from Khalifa University, which is developing GNEII into a broader, research-based institute. Personnel from Sandia and NSSPI will teach the classes, staying for up to several weeks at a time.
A key element to the program is nonproliferation, Adam adds. Typically the word has a negative connotation with many foreign countries that see it as a means for the US to deny access to technologies, Adam says. GNEII represents an opportunity to examine the concept outside of the political arena and offer a better understanding of the underlying principles to future regional nuclear energy decision-makers.
Ultimately, Adam says, what GNEII may provide to the rest of the world is a fresh take on nuclear energy policy. He adds, “This program should ideally develop a cadre of Middle Eastern nuclear energy experts who can further contribute to the international conversation on nonproliferation.”
While Adam was the lead, the program team included many contributors from Sandia and Texas A&M and Khalifa University. The project management team included Patricia Dickens (4031), Geoff Forden (6821), Faraj Ghanbari (6821), Scott Struve (4031), David Boyle (Texas A&M), and Phil Beeley (Khalifa). The curriculum development and instruction team included Shawn Burns (6231), Matthew Dennis (6231), Randy Gaunt (6232), Marvin Hadley (4128), John Matter (6833), Riyaz Natha (6613), Ashley Nilsen (6821), Brian Thomson (4128), Ryan Whalen (6821), Timothy Wheeler (6231), and from Texas A&M, Mike Schuller, Bill Charlton, Charles Kurwitz, and Alex Solodov, who is also affiliated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.