Saudi Arabia Pursuing Nuclear Energy to Maximize Energy Diversity

By: Bandar Altunisi, Associate

Known as global powerhouse of fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia has focused on diversifying its energy sources in the last 10 years. Saudi Arabia considers solar energy to be a leading alternative energy source with an approximate potential 2,200 thermal kWh of solar radiation (sunshine) per square meter.[1] Furthermore, Saudi Arabia intends to pursue other alternative energy sources like wind power, waste to energy, biomass, and other viable sources of clean energy. King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), a government authority charged with promoting development and advancing research in renewable and atomic energy, issued a roadmap with a goal of 54 GW of power produced from renewable energy sources (mostly wind and solar) by 2032.[2]

Recently, Saudi Arabia has contracted with many nuclear countries to begin developing a peaceful nuclear program. In 2011, Saudi Arabia signed agreements with France, Argentina, and South Korea for nuclear research and development and support for building nuclear reactors.[3] In 2012, China and Saudi Arabia agreed that Chinese experts would support the development, maintenance and research on reactors.[4] In 2013, Saudi Arabia singed a contract with Japanese companies to pursue reactor construction contracts deals with KACARE.[5] Saudi Arabia is clearly proactive about developing its nuclear program.

The primary reason why Saudi Arabia is pursuing a nuclear energy program is to meet rising domestic energy demands. “Energy consumption in Saudi Arabia is growing faster than any other country in the Middle East”.[6] Some economist estimates that in 20 years, Saudi Arabia will consume around two thirds of its own daily oil production capacity.[7] Solar and Wind energy cannot meet the energy demands of the Saudi population alone. Therefore, Saudi Arabia plans to have nuclear power provide 15% of Saudi Arabia’s power in 20 years.[8]

What steps should Saudi Arabia take in order to develop an effective and safe nuclear energy program? Firstly, an independent nuclear regulatory agency should be created to overlook the development and regulation of nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. KACARE has announced its intention to establish Saudi Arabian Atomic Energy Authority (SAARA), a nuclear regulatory authority.[9] Although the specific powers of SAARA have yet to be outlined, it should serve as the primary authority over nuclear development, construction, regulation, maintenance, safety procedures, and waste management. SARAA should coordinate connectivity between nuclear reactors and the relevant grid operates and regulators.

Second, in preparation for building nuclear reactors, Saudi Arabia should anticipate and take into account the most likely natural occurrences and disaster of the specific area of each reactor’s location. For example, the majority of Saudi Araba experiences extremely high levels of heat during many months of the year and the reactor cooling systems must be built to withhold such temperatures, and continue to operate effectively, particularly in the summer.

Third, Saudi Arabia should make preliminary plans on how to deal with nuclear waste. Reprocessing facilities and storage facilities should be built before or in coordination with the nuclear reactors. Alternatively, Saudi Arabia can form agreements with other nations to accept Saudi nuclear waste and store it or reprocess it in foreign facilities. Planning ahead when it comes to nuclear waste management will help Saudi Arabia avoid many problems that current nuclear states face. The U.S., for example, has thousands of tons of nuclear waste with no permanent storage facility to store the waste in.[10]

Finally, Saudi Arabia must ensure the security of nuclear reactors, materials, and technology. Current nuclear powers should ensure that Saudi Arabia does not advance its nuclear program passed peaceful purposes. Saudi Arabia currently has many safeguard agreements in place with the IAEA, but other nations should sign bilateral agreements to ensure oversight over Saudi nuclear activities. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia should provide the highest security internally for its future nuclear facilities. Saudi authorities should provide high levels of facility security as well as ensure that employees are adequately screened to ensure that nuclear materials and technologies do not fall into the hands of extremist elements in the region.

Many countries in the region, like Iran and Israel, as well as the rest of the world are weary of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambition. However, the reality is that Saudi Arabian energy consumption is rising rapidly and traditional clean energy sources, like solar, cannot address such rising energy consumption. Nuclear energy can provide an effective long-term base-load for Saudi Arabia that will allow the kingdom to move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy sources.[11]

[1] Electricity & Co-generation Regulatory Authority (hereinafter ECRA), Proposal For National Renewable Energy Plan for Saudi Arabia, available at: http://www.ewh.ieee.org/r8/sa/cms/images/techdins/2010april13/ieee%20-%20nrep%20presentation-13%20apr%202010.pdf

[2] Abdullah M. Al-Shehri, Saudi Arabia’s Renewable Energy Strategy and Solar Energy Deployment Roadmap, KACARE, http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/masdar/Abdulrahman%20Al%20Ghabban%20Presentation.pdf

[3] World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia, available at: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-O-S/Saudi-Arabia/

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] James Conca, Saudi Arabia Fast-Tracks Nuclear Power, Forbes, Sept. 8, 2014, available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/09/08/saudi-arabia-fast-tracks-nuclear-power/

[7] Nasser Al-Tamimi, Will Riyadh Get the Bomb? Saudi Arabia’s Atomic Ambitions, The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 2, No 2, Spring 2013, available at: http://www.meforum.org/3509/saudi-arabia-nuclear-bomb

[8] Supra note 6.

[9] KACARE, Atomic, available at: http://www.kacare.gov.sa/en/?page_id=86

[10] Jonathan Fahey & Ray Henry, U.S. Nuclear Waste Increasing With No Permanent Storage Available, Huffington Post, March 23, 2011, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/23/us-nuclear-waste-radioactive-storage_n_839438.html

[11] Supra note 6

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