GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Energy Plans: Problems, Prospects and Politics
Paper Proposal Text :
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is making a serious push to harness nuclear energy in order to meet, albeit partially, the Kingdom’s soaring energy requirements. Sharply rising demand for power spurred by population growth, a rapidly expanding industrial sector led by petrochemical cities, huge water desalination plants that pump out more than 3 million cubic meters of potable water each day, high demand for air conditioning during the peak summer months, and heavily subsidized electricity disbursal, have put upward pressure on the country’s fossil fuel resources. Power generation in Saudi Arabia – as in the rest of the Middle East in general – is thermal, powered by hydrocarbons such as crude oil and fuel oil, enabled by one of the world’s largest hydrocarbons reserves and historically high oil prices.

Soaring demand for electricity prompted a vast power generation expansion programme in 2010, as the KSA plans to increase generating capacity from 55 GW to 120 GW by 2020, with further increases planned by 2032. The KSA anticipates a rise in domestic oil consumption, currently about 3.2 million barrels per day, to around 8 million barrels per day, approaching its current output in 2028. Although Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest proven reserves of 264 billion barrels, capable of supplying crude for the next 80 years at current production, anticipated rise in domestic energy demand, will ultimately limit the export capacity of the kingdom. Petroleum export, which accounts for 90 percent of government income, acquires renewed salience in the context of the Arab Spring. The Saudis need to keep up their large social welfare spending for many years to come to stave off unrest that has engulfed several countries in the region.

Thus the world’s leading oil exporter has laid the groundwork for ambitious non-conventional energy plans in an effort to curtail the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and free up oil for export. By 2032, Saudi Arabia strives to generate almost 54 GW of power from non-conventional sources. This energy target would dramatically reduce domestic oil consumption and meet the country’s increasing power needs. The Kingdom is seeking a diversity of solutions between wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear, to provide clean and sustainable energy to its people.

The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), the Kingdom’s energy diversification establishment, announced in June 2012 that Saudi Arabia plans to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030. It aims to have the first two nuclear reactors in 10 years i.e. by 2022, and two more in each subsequent year. Saudi Arabia plans to add 20 percent or 18 GW of nuclear energy, which combined with 16 GW solar PV, 25 GW solar CSP, and 4 GW from geothermal, wind and waste would represent half of the country’s power demand.

Saudi arabia has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with France, China, South Korea and Argentina, enabling it to purchase technology and equipment from these countries. Treaties with Russia, Britain, Hungary, Finland, Japan and the United States are under discussion. GE Electric Company, the KSA's largest equipment provider, is also looking to secure nuclear power contracts. The Saudis plan to call for preliminary bids for its first nuclear reactor in 2014, which would inaugurate the region’s largest atomic energy programme, a much-needed lifeline for nuclear industry in general, that is fraught by post-Fukushima public cynicism and the global economic meltdown.

Saudi Arabia officially started looking into nuclear power in 2006. Along with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman – Riyadh led an assessment study into the possibility of a nuclear power, in addition to investigating the feasibility of developing a joint nuclear energy programme with the GCC. The IAEA officials have been involved with the feasibility study of Gulf countries’ joint nuclear programme and the GCC members are keen that the Agency should continuously monitor and regulate the project.

Although Saudi Arabia has vocally supported and reiterated the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, the Kingdom’s quest for nuclear energy has not been without its share of controversies. A periodically surfacing allegation relates to Saudi funding for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme since 1975. It is rumoured that Riyadh views Pakistan’s ‘Islamic bomb’ as contributing to its own security and that also accounts for the Kingdom’s support to Islamabad’s missile development programme as well. Some also fear that once Saudi Arabia has a nuclear energy programme, it could develop nuclear weapons with outside assistance - perhaps from Pakistan. Others point to the initiatives by King Abdullah to train young Saudi scientists and engineers at world-class institutions in the West could assist a long-term nuclear weapons programme in the Kingdom itself.

While such allegations and fears are largely unsubstantiated by any concrete document in the public realm, the recent surge in interest regarding the development of nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia (and indeed other GCC countries) seem to represent some kind of a reaction to Iran’s controversial nuclear programme that many in the West believe, has a potential weapons development facet. While both nuclear energy programme and nuclear weapons production follow similar technical path, any country’s decision to pursue the latter is always a conscious political decision. Saudi Arabia, which has signed the NPT in 1988 and the comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 2005, will certainly weigh its cost in terms of international sanctions and repercussions on the strategic US-Saudi relations, if it were to consider a nuclear weapons programme in the unspecified future.

In the context of the above, this paper argues that:

a) First, Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its energy mix, so that it can free-up more oil for export that earns the Kingdom crucial revenues for developmental needs. So the KSA has a compelling economic need to start a nuclear energy programme.

b) Secondly, several policies indicate that the country is striving to develop all the energy solutions in the field of non-conventional energy, which are sustainable in the long-term and easily available at reasonable price to the domestic consumers. In fact, the KSA aims to make renewables driver for the domestic energy in years to come.

c) Thirdly, several critical factors militate against Saudi Arabia pursuing the nuclear weapons path, not least political. Saudi Arabia lacks the natural resources, technological capability, and scientific community necessary to develop a nuclear weapons programme. It has precious little experience in several basic aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as, enriching uranium for reactor fuel, nuclear fuel conversion, nuclear fuel fabrication, and operating nuclear reactors, that must be mastered to develop nuclear weapons.

d) Finally, if Saudi Arabia perceives a fraying of its strong relations with the United States and feels vulnerable about emergence of a strategically stronger Iran following rapprochement with the major powers on the nuclear issue, it may consider a nuclear option. Being the world’s largest producer of oil could grant the kingdom immunity from potential sanctions, similar to those imposed on Iran. However, this seems to be a renegade’s choice of action, even as Saudi Arabia faces long-term vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The only case in which Saudis will be compellingly motivated to go nuclear is a scenario in which Iran crosses the threshold and this seems unlikely with the Joint Plan of Action between the world powers and Iran.