Saudi Arabia has sent a strong signal that it intends to pursue civilian nuclear power, announcing it will establish a centre for nuclear and renewable energy technology. The King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy in Riyadh will host university research laboratories and private-sector enterprises involved in low-carbon energy, according to a royal decree published by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Hashim Abdullah Yamani, the former commerce and trade minister, was appointed to head the centre. He is also a Harvard-trained physicist. "Using alternative sources of energy that are reliable and sustainable for power generation and water desalination will reduce dependence on the hydrocarbon resources, which will prolong the life of the hydrocarbon resources and keep [them] as a source of income for a longer period," the Saudi oil minister Ali al Naimi said.
While OPEC's biggest oil producer had previously announced plans to develop solar energy for domestic power and export, officials had sent conflicting signals about nuclear power. But that ended on Saturday with the announcement that the new centre will draft a national policy for nuclear power use, supervise the kingdom's use of atomic energy and management of nuclear waste and represent Saudi Arabia at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Saudi Arabia joins other Gulf oil and gas exporters, led by the UAE, that are pursuing nuclear power to reduce their domestic consumption of petroleum resources for electricity generation. The kingdom burns oil to provide more than half its electricity, with natural gas fuelling almost all the rest of its power plants. It has only installed a few megawatts' worth of solar power, less than the 10mw of solar capacity powering the development of Masdar City, the "carbon neutral" community being built near Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia "is witnessing sustained growth in demand for power and desalinated water due to high population growth and subsidised prices of water and power", Mr al Naimi said. In 2008, the largest Arab economy consumed about 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil, up 50 per cent since the start of the decade, according to US government data. Since then, it has markedly increased the amount of crude oil used in its thermal power plants.
Last month, Saleh Alawaji, the Saudi deputy minister of electricity, forecast that the kingdom's burning of crude for power generation would increase by two thirds to an average 2.5 million bpd in 2020 from 1.5 million bpd last year. Saudi Arabia's heavy reliance on oil in its electricity sector has contributed to air pollution and carbon emissions, while potentially limiting exports of oil and petrochemicals. Although the kingdom's crude exports have recently been constrained by a reduced OPEC quota, that may change as global energy demand recovers.
Saudi Arabia has the world's largest oil reserves, 264 billion barrels, and production capacity of 12.5 million bpd, but recently has been pumping less crude than Russia following the OPEC cuts. Even so, the country will need to export more oil to pay for planned industrial development, including aggressive expansion of its refining and petrochemicals sectors. @Email:tcarlisle@thenational