Photo of Ghena Alhanaee

Energy & sustainability

Ghena Alhanaee

Heavy dependence on infrastructure like oil rigs, nuclear reactors, and desalination plants can be catastrophic in a crisis. Her data-driven framework could help nations prepare.

Year Honored



Hails From
United Arab Emirates

Early on in her days as a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, Ghena Alhanaee stumbled upon a disturbing set of facts. The countries of the Persian Gulf, including her native United Arab Emirates, were far more vulnerable to disaster than she’d realized. Not only was the Gulf itself one of the world’s largest oil and gas production zones, with more than 800 offshore platforms and thousands of tankers passing through its shallow waters every year, but the UAE was also building the Arab Peninsula’s first nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, several Gulf countries relied almost exclusively on desalinated Gulf water for drinking, with emergency supplies for just two or three days. “If something were to happen, and desalination plants weren’t able to operate, right now there really is no backup plan,” Alhanaee says.

Ever since, she has devoted her energy to tackling the Gulf’s disaster preparedness gap. She’s developing a data-driven framework to help the region better mitigate the risks of an oil spill or nuclear accident. Since the Gulf’s nuclear industry is nascent, and its oil and gas sector keeps its data private, she’s relying on information from the US: her statistical model draws on data from more than 4,000 reported safety incidents in the US nuclear and offshore oil industries over the past decade. The trick, she says, is to better understand which combinations of small incidents, under which scenarios, are most likely to snowball into something major.

Alhanaee’s framework seeks to do just that. She plans to apply her findings to a particularly vulnerable spot in the Gulfin the vicinity of the Barakah nuclear power plant, which is nearing completion, and large-scale oil and desalination installations. Ultimately, she hopes her research will help the region’s governments develop more robust, and better coordinated, disaster mitigation strategies.