Saudis get serious on nuclear alternative for power plants
But within six months of its completion in 2013, the kingdom's growth in electricity use will mean even more is needed. For the Middle East's largest economy, the lesson of the past decade's unchecked consumption has become painfully clear: it must find alternatives to burning more and more of its most precious resource or risk undermining its cherished status as one of the world's largest exporters of oil.
With the obvious alternative, natural gas, in increasingly short supply and the government reluctant to raise prices for consumers, the solution, the government says, is to follow the UAE's lead and embark on an unprecedented build-up of nuclear power plants. Few doubt Saudi Arabia has the financial and technical resources to mount an ambitious nuclear programme. But nuclear power comes with political questions that lie in the hands of foreign government bodies, including the notoriously fickle US Congress.
A fleet of reactors producing seven times the total capacity that nuclear plants being built in the UAE will provide could meet the kingdom's minimum "base load" power needs, said Khalid Suleiman, the vice president for renewable energy at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy. Nuclear reactors, running day and night, would supply the basic needs of industry and residents, while fossil-fuel powered plants would boost output during the hotter summer months to meet peak needs, he added.
"Between summer and winter there is a great gap of almost 40 per cent that we can utilise, that is where renewables and nuclear can play a role," he told an industry conference in Jeddah. "In 2030, there is a need of at least 40 gigawatts of base load in winter, this can be satisfied by nuclear. And in the summer we would increase it to 70 to 75gw." To put those figures in context, a typical gas-fired power station in the region produces 1.5gw and Abu Dhabi's grid in total supplies just over 10gw.
To access the civilian nuclear technology controlled by the small group of nuclear supplier countries, the Saudi government must conclude bilateral agreements that state it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and would be able to acquire reactor technology from countries such as Russia or France. But it would also want to earn the backing of the US, as the UAE did last year, said Peter Jenkins, who served as Britain's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 2001 and 2006, and is now an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
The US, in addition to being a close ally of Riyadh, operates the world's largest number of nuclear reactors and still manufactures many components used in plants of all designs. The former administration of George W Bush concluded a preliminary nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2008. However, any final US-Saudi co-operation deal, known as a 123 Agreement, would need the approval of Congress, which would be likely to set a number of conditions, Mr Jenkins said.
"It seems to me if the Americans are prepared to sell US$60 billion (Dh220.3bn) worth of military hardware to the Saudis, they're also ready to see them constructing nuclear reactors," Mr Jenkins said, referring to an arms deal expected to come before Congress this year. "I suppose there are some on the right in America and some under the influence of [Israeli lobbying groups] who might try and object to the deal but I think it would go through nonetheless."
To secure its own 123 Agreement last year, the UAE agreed to forego its right under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium into reactor fuel and said it would rely on imports instead. The Saudi government would almost certainly have to make the same pledge to Washington, said Michael Adler, a Middle East nuclear expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.
"The bottom line is that any agreement going forward in the Middle East, to fly in the US Congress, would have to include a pledge not to do enrichment," he said. A consultant to the Saudi nuclear programme told Reuters in June that the kingdom had not ruled out the enrichment of domestic uranium reserves in its draft nuclear strategy but no government official has commented publicly on the matter.
A dress rehearsal of such negotiations is now playing out in neighbouring Jordan where the government plans to build a nuclear reactor by 2020 and is anxious to secure US approval but which has publicly baulked at giving up its right to enrichment. Kamal Khdier, a senior Jordanian nuclear official, suggested recently in Dubai that the two sides would reach a compromise solution by the end of the year in which Jordan maintained its enrichment rights but assured the US that it had no intention of acting on them for decades, if ever.
Based on his own conversations with senior sources in Congress, Mr Adler said it appeared a co-operation deal with Saudi Arabia would earn approval if Riyadh were willing to take the same conditions as Abu Dhabi. The US dispute with Iran over its own nuclear programme and its imminent start-up of a nuclear reactor at Bushehr only boosted the case for an agreement, he said. "I think it's hard to say no to Saudi Arabia if you've got Iran running Bushehr, the UAE getting a 123 Agreement and we're wrestling something out with Jordan," he said. "Saudi Arabia is one of the major states in the region, how can you say no to them?"
Published: October 10, 2010 04:00 AM