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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates, in a first among Gulf Arab states, geared up Wednesday to start building its maiden nuclear power plant after securing approval from regulators.
The license from the UAE's Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation will make the country the first in more than two and a half decades to embark on construction of its first nuclear power plant. It covers the construction of the initial two reactors of a plant slated for a remote coastal site near the border with Saudi Arabia.
The project is designed to meet growing demand for power in the rapidly developing seven-state federation, which includes the Mideast commercial hub Dubai and the energy-rich capital Abu Dhabi. Despite its oil wealth, the OPEC member has to import natural gas to run many of its existing power plants and has struggled to keep up with demand.
FANR Director General William Travers called the granting of the construction license "an important milestone in any nuclear program."
"All of the specific characteristics of the site have been assessed," he said. "It represents at least a preliminary approval of the design that's been proposed."
Travers, a veteran of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the UAE regulator specifically asked the plant's developer, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp., to examine lessons learned from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster as part of the approval process.
"We had an opportunity ... to take account of Fukushima and do something on paper before it was already constructed," he said.
That review prompted ENEC to propose some design changes, such as adding watertight doors in certain areas, but no major adjustments were needed, Travers said.
The license does not authorize the state-backed ENEC to physically import nuclear fuel or operate the reactors. That approval requires another round of applications to the regulator.
A UAE environmental regulator signed off on the project earlier this week.
ENEC in late 2009 awarded the $20 billion contract to build the power plant to a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corp. The Korean company beat out more seasoned atomic power producers in France, Japan and the United States. It will be the first time South Korea is building a nuclear plant overseas.
The U.S.-allied Emirates signed a deal with Washington shortly before awarding the contract in which it agreed not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel for plutonium, which is used in nuclear bombs.
American officials have characterized that agreement, originally signed during the final days of the administration of President George W. Bush, as a model for curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. The UAE plans to buy fuel for its reactors from abroad.
Other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are interested in building nuclear power plants of their own.
Iran, the UAE's neighbor across the Gulf, is meanwhile facing increasing international pressure over its nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Iran says the program is only for peaceful purposes.
Mohamed al-Hammadi, ENEC's chief executive, welcomed the regulatory approval announced Wednesday, saying it shows that the company is "committed to the highest standards of safety and quality."
The company is mobilizing a team to move ahead with construction, he added. Workers are expected to begin pouring concrete as early as this week.
Four 1,400-megawatt reactors are expected to eventually be built on the sparsely populated Barakah site in the far west of the UAE.
China was the last country to begin building its first nuclear power plant in 1985, according to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.
ENEC hopes to have the first reactor running by 2017.