First Published: 2018-03-14

Saudi Arabia fast-tracking nuclear energy programme
World’s largest exporter of oil plans to build two nuclear reactors in effort to curb oil addiction but plans under scrutiny amid growing tensions between US, Iran.
Middle East Online

Saudi Energy Minister Khaled al-Faleh

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia is fast-tracking an atomic energy programme to reduce its dependence on oil, but concerns over nuclear proliferation in the Middle East could put a damper on its ambitious plans.

The atomic policy, which limits nuclear activities to peaceful purposes, was approved by the cabinet on Tuesday just days before powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Washington.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of oil, has framed its nuclear project as driven purely by economics.

The kingdom is struggling to meet fast-rising energy demand and crude prices remain far below their peaks reached before the 2014 market crash.

Saudi Energy Minister Khaled al-Faleh said in October that the nuclear programme would start by building two reactors, each producing between 1.2 and 1.6 gigawatts of electricity.

But the atomic ambitions of the key US ally and regional power are coming under scrutiny in Washington at a time of growing tensions between the US and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme.

The Saudi cabinet says its nuclear programme will be in "full compliance with the principle of transparency" and meet nuclear safety standards "in accordance with an independent regulatory and supervisory framework".

The country has accelerated plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next two decades, according to officials and analysts, at a cost of around $80 billion.

The reactors are expected to generate 17.6 gigawatts of electricity -- 10 percent of the country's power needs -- by 2040.

- Bidders line up -

Riyadh is expected to shortlist next month two to three international firms out of five bidders from China, South Korea, Russia, France and the United States, according to Abdulmalik al-Sabery, a consultant in the business development department at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE).

In December, one firm will be selected to build the first two nuclear reactors, Sabery told Bloomberg News in January.

Construction of the reactors will start next year although they are not expected to begin operating before 2027, Sabery said.

Energy consumption in Saudi Arabia has been rising at more than five percent per year although growth slowed in 2017 after the government cut subsidies and hiked prices.

Electricity consumption is expected to double over the next 15 years, reaching 120 gigawatts by 2032, Abdullah al-Shehri, governor of Saudi Arabia's Electricity and Co-generation Regulatory Authority, said.

The kingdom draws on oil and natural gas to both generate power and desalinate its water so turning to other sources of power, including solar, would free up crude for exportation.

By 2040, 55 percent of the country's power supply will come from solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear energy combined, according to KACARE.

The projects will cost the kingdom around $67 billion over the next five years, according to energy minister Faleh.

But the Middle East Economic Digest last week estimated Riyadh had already spent over $82 billion on electricity projects in the past decade.

- Cost and controversy -

Riyadh has signed cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding with over a dozen countries in recent years to boost nuclear cooperation, including France, China, Russia, Hungary and South Korea.

Its plans have sparked some controversy in Washington, where tensions are high over the atomic programme of Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran, which denies seeking nuclear arms.

An American legislator, Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, has expressed concern over the efforts of US President Donald Trump administration to sign a cooperation accord with Saudi Arabia.

Trump has threatened to tear up a 2015 global pact under which Riyadh's arch-rival Tehran -- facing suspicions it was working towards a nuclear bomb -- agreed to curb its atomic programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

Analysts have also warned that capacity to produce nuclear energy could potentially open the door to military options across the Middle East.

"Concern about a nuclear arms race is fuelled by uncertainty over the future of Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement, a seeming US willingness to weaken its strict export safeguards in pursuit of economic advantage, and a willingness by suppliers such as Russia and China to ignore risks involved in weaker controls," said James Dorsey, a Middle East expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.


Israel confirms it hit suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007

Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in Eastern Ghouta town

Abbas calls US ambassador to Israel 'son of a dog'

UN says Turkey security measures 'curtail human rights'

'Saudization' taking its toll on salesmen

Ahed Tamimi reaches plea deal for eight months in jail

UN launching final push to salvage Libya political agreement

Conditions for displaced from Syria's Ghouta 'tragic': UN

Sisi urges Egyptians to vote, denies excluding rivals

Rights Watch says Libya not ready for elections

Saudis revamp school curriculum to combat Muslim Brotherhood

American mother trapped in Syria’s Ghouta calls out Trump

Syria workers say French firm abandoned them to jihadists

Grim Nowruz for Kurds fleeing Afrin

Sarkozy back in custody for second day of questioning

Netanyahu says African migrants threaten Jewish majority

US Senate votes on involvement in Yemen war as Saudi prince visits

What a ‘limited strike’ against Syria’s Assad might mean

Natural gas in eastern Mediterranean fuels increasing tensions

Erdogan tells US to stop ‘deceiving’, start helping on Syria

IS controls Damascus district in surprise attack

French ex-president held over Libya financing allegations

NGO says Israeli army violating Palestinian minors’ rights

Human rights chief slams Security Council for inaction on Syria

US warns Turkey over civilians caught in Syria assault

Saudi crown prince keen to cement ties with US

Erdogan vows to expand Syria op to other Kurdish-held areas

Kurdish envoy accuses foreign powers of ignoring Turkish war crimes

Morocco authorities vow to close Jerada's abandoned mines

Israeli soldier sees manslaughter sentence slashed

Turkey insists no plans to remain in Afrin

Cairo voters show unwavering support for native son Sisi

Forum in Jordan explores new teaching techniques

Gaza Strip woes receive renewed attention but no fix is expected

Kurds, Syrian opposition condemn Afrin looting

36 jihadists killed in Egypt’s Sinai

Israel arrests French consulate worker for gun smuggling

Pro-Turkish forces loot Afrin

Israel prepares to demolish Jerusalem attacker's home

Saudi crown prince says his country to seek nuclear bomb if Iran does

Arab women artists in diaspora focus on identity and loss

Tunisia’s Central Bank targets inflation but may hurt growth prospects

Libya’s health system reflects a larger humanitarian crisis

Israel blasts Gaza underground tunnel

Abu Dhabi awards France's Total stakes in oil concessions