Saudi Arabia in agreement to explore nuclear power

Saudi Arabia has enlisted the help of France in developing a civilian nuclear power programme.

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RIYADH // Saudi Arabia has signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with France that advances the kingdom's atomic energy programme.

The agreement for co-operation in developing peaceful uses for nuclear energy is the first such accord signed by the kingdom.

The pact "allows Saudi experts to study the French technology options, their financial requirements and implications for developing qualified national human resources", Saudi and French officials said yesterday in a joint statement.

France is Europe's biggest developer and user of nuclear power, relying on it for about 80 per cent of the country's electricity. The French nuclear industry has been seeking contracts to build and operate nuclear facilities in emerging markets, including in the Middle East.

In 2009, a French consortium was among those shortlisted to bid on the US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) main construction contract for Abu Dhabi's first nuclear plants but lost to a rival South Korean group.

Facing 8 per cent annual growth in domestic power demand, "Saudi Arabia has decided to make use of alternative energy resources, such as atomic energy, solar energy, geothermal energy and wind energy", said Dr Hashim Yamani, the president of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (Ka-Care).

"This will enable Ka-Care to carry out a comparison between the alternatives available to the kingdom in its long-term programme aiming at building alternative energy plants for electricity production and water desalination."

The statement cited recent economic forecasts indicating that Saudi power demand would triple by 2032, requiring the installation of 80 gigawatts (gw) of additional power generation capacity.

But nuclear and large-scale renewable power in Saudi Arabia will take years to develop.

The kingdom burns oil to generate more than 50 per cent of its electricity, which causes air pollution and cuts into the amount of crude it can export.

It is investing heavily in new gas-fired power plants while seeking to develop sufficient additional gas production to fuel them. But some analysts predict Saudi Arabia will soon join the growing list of Gulf states importing gas.

Siemens Energy of Germany announced yesterday it had won an order for more than $1bn of turbines, steam generators and other parts for a Saudi power and water project at Ras Az Zawr.

The 2.4gw gas-fired plant is scheduled to start supplying electricity to a large aluminium project in early 2014, while also producing drinking water for Riyadh, the Saudi capital.