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Why Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia Is Turning to Nuclear Power

Alternative Energy

With the world’s second-biggest proven reserves of oil, Saudi Arabia seems an unlikely aspirant to the nuclear-energy club. Yet the largest oil exporter plans to build at least 16 nuclear reactors over the next 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. The Saudis see atomic energy as a way to ease their dependence on finite fossil fuels. But they are also driven by competition with their rival Iran, which has multiple nuclear facilities. Whatever the motivation, the turn to nuclear power by Saudi Arabia, and several other countries in Middle East, raises the risk of a nuclear arms race in the most unstable part of the world.

1. What’s the security risk?

Most nuclear reactors are fueled with enriched uranium, which means countries that want nuclear power must either import the stuff or have their own enrichment capability. Saudi Arabia is insisting on the latter, which could be worrisome, given that highly enriched uranium can be used to build nuclear weapons. Another type of reactor is powered by raw uranium, which Saudi Arabia possesses, but that type produces plutonium, another fuel for nuclear arms.

2. Why does Saudi Arabia want nuclear power now?

Much of the government’s plan for the future, called Vision 2030, is based on diversifying the Saudi economy to prepare for the day when oil and natural gas wells run dry. At the same time, electricity demand in the country has risen by as much as 9 percent a year since 2000, compared with less than 1 percent in developed countries such as the U.S., according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Water desalination is a large draw on power in Saudi Arabia.

3. Why nuclear power instead of just renewables?

Solar energy would seem like a good option for Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom has plans to develop 9.5 gigawatts of solar and other renewables by 2023. The abundance of sunshine there would make solar much cheaper than nuclear power. Under recent contracts awarded in the region, electricity from solar power costs about $30 per megawatt hour, less than half the costs of nuclear power, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. On the other hand, solar power requires either battery installations, to store energy, or alternative power sources, for when the sun isn’t shining. And solar doesn’t have the prestige of nuclear power, which demonstrates a certain level of scientific achievement.

4. Does Saudi Arabia want nuclear weapons?

In an interview with the U.S. television network CBS aired in mid-March, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who effectively runs the country for his father King Salman, said, “Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to own a nuclear bomb. But without a doubt, if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

5. Is Iran developing a nuclear bomb?

Though Iran has consistently denied any interest in pursuing atomic weapons, its uranium-enrichment practices contributed to deep mistrust in the past. In a 2015 deal with world powers — including the U.S. under President Donald Trump’s predecessor — Iran agreed, in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions, to decommission its plutonium-producing reactor and to limit its refining of uranium to no more than the level needed to fuel power plants. The Saudis have embraced Trump’s efforts to upend that agreement. The president argues that the Iranians can’t be trusted to abide by the deal and that, in any case, they will be free to pursue nuclear weapons when it expires after 15 years.

6. What’s the problem between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

The two are vying for dominance in the Middle East. Their forces and proxies are arrayed against each other in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Each purports to lead the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia because of its role as the custodian of the holy places Mecca and Medina, Iran because of its Islamic revolution of 1979. The majority of Saudis follow the dominant Sunni branch of Islam, while most Iranians are Shiites. The rivalry has intensified with the rise of Prince Mohammed, who is particularly hawkish when it comes to Iran.

7. What happens next?

The Trump administration, eager to revive the torpid American nuclear industry, is pushing Saudi Arabia to consider U.S. companies — such as Westinghouse Electric Co. and Exelon Corp. — for its nuclear contracts instead of competitors from Russia, China and other countries. But the U.S. is reluctant to offer the Saudis deals without a prohibition on any uranium enrichment or fuel reprocessing in-country. The United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, agreed to that so-called “gold standard” a decade ago to facilitate the inclusion of some U.S. parts in its four Korean-built reactors, the first of which is expected to go online this year.

8. What do the Saudis say?

They note that, unlike the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits and wants to be self-sufficient in the preparation of nuclear fuel. Saudis point out that Iran is permitted under the 2015 accord to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and say they want the same right.

9. Who else in the region is going nuclear?

The U.A.E. is set to become the first Arab nation with utility-scale nuclear power when it starts operating its plants, estimated to cost $25 billion. While the U.A.E. is a major oil producer, it relies on imported gas to generate much of its electricity. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, has signed a $30 billion deal with Russia’s Rosatom to build four nuclear plants. And Jordan, which has negligible energy resources, has signed construction deals with Rosatom and U.S.-based X-Energy in a program that could cost as much as $12 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. While no Arab nation is known to have a nuclear arsenal, Israel, which began operating a plutonium-production reactor in 1963, possesses enough material for between 100 and 170 atomic weapons, according to an estimate by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Israel has never acknowledged having nuclear arms.

14 Comments on "Why Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia Is Turning to Nuclear Power"

  1. dave thompson on Fri, 23rd Mar 2018 11:33 am 

    More nukes, that can save us all.

  2. peakyeast on Fri, 23rd Mar 2018 4:20 pm 

    So how many nuclear plants in how many countries do we need to replace fossil fuels?

    A rough calc might look like this:

    Says we have about 450 operating providing about 10% of electricity demand WW which again is about 10% of total energy.

    A rough estimate would thus be we need 100x as many nuclear plants.

    So we need to go from 450 to 45.000 in about 20 years. Just going from 450 to 900 in 20 years – I dont believe that happening for even one second.

    If that is going to happen I am going to eat my old shoes with rubber soles from Firestone tires.

  3. dave thompson on Fri, 23rd Mar 2018 4:36 pm 

    “If that is going to happen I am going to eat my old shoes with rubber soles from Firestone tires.”

    No No No put them on the human tire fie of energy life!

  4. Don Zenga on Fri, 23rd Mar 2018 9:32 pm 

    Nuclear power makes perfect sense. Saudi Arabia has 33 million population and the power for cooling needs is very high during hot summer days.
    If they can replace oil/gas fired power generation with nuclear power, then they can export that oil to make more money.

    Of late, they are reducing crude oil exports and instead refining it to gasoline/diesel/jet fuel and exporting those products to get better margins. And lot of electricity is needed in the refining process. For heating power in refineries they may use the saved natgas that otherwise would have been used for power gen.

    Desalination is another application which needs heat & power and nuclear power can be used.

    Going back to the concept to exporting refined products, Saudi’s have already acquired America’s largest refinery and also picking up stakes in refineries in China, India, Japan, Korea. This way they can control the entire chain from prodcution -> refining -> retail sales and cut the traders whether its in London (Brent) or New York (WTI) or Shanghai (new benchmark).

    It’s a master move and I hope USA get’s a share in their nuclear business instead of talking age old rules.

  5. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 2:37 am 

    more camel-riding terrorists with dynamite
    wrapped around the middle,
    building nuclear plants because they
    supposedly need it for electrical power.
    they are gonna siphon off the uranium and
    build nuclear bombs. and use them.

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 2:38 am 

    old shoes go into the campfire.

  7. Cloggie on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 4:48 am 

    A rough estimate would thus be we need 100x as many nuclear plants.

    There is about 8.5 years uranium left for 100% electricity.
    (85 years at current consumption)
    Australia has 31% reserves.

    After that the entire world one giant Sellafield.

    Oh, wind turbines and solar panels will continue to produce without side-effects until the sun stops shining in 2 billion years.

  8. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 9:07 am 

    Hi Clogster,
    Agree that Uranium fuel is not plentiful,
    also it creates far too much waste.

    Thorium Fuel would work pretty well.

    However humanity has no interest in solving
    its problems. Humanity cannot even figure out
    how to stop dumping old shower curtains into
    the oceans where a dolphin will eat it and
    die a horrible death.

    Because humanity is a bunch of destructive

    A little typo U might want to consider.

    The sun is 4 billion years old.
    It will not Nova until 4 billion years in
    the future. Total run-time 8 billion years.

    Unfortunately, just 1 billion years from
    now, (age of sun would be 5 billion years)
    the fuel content changes enough to swell up
    the sun and it will get much bigger/hotter
    and its enough to boil away all the oceans
    of Earth.

    Figure nobody around by then.

    So there’s no way keep using your windmills
    and solar panels for more than 1 billion
    years max.

    Just helping U fix that little typo.

    after that, some other solar system will
    have to evolve, with some other life forms
    who build some completely different society.

    Hopefully without old shower curtains in the
    oceans that kill their sea creatures.

    BTW windmills are just too ugly, and
    a better source of cheap renewable power
    is old tires. Like this:

  9. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 9:14 am 

    Here is a detailed video explaining
    Thorium reactor and liquid fuel.

    Only for those with scientific minds,
    rather than emotional knee-jerkers.

    Its important however that humanity not
    solve any of its problems.

    Excuse me while I take a 55 gallon drumful
    of garbage (iron, aluminum, copper, banana peels, and old cardboard) and dump it
    over the edge into the ravine.

    Cause dumping garbage into public lands
    will Make America Great Again.
    Shooting guns into the air will also
    Make America Great Again.

    Especially in combinations. Dump garbage
    while shooting guns into the air, while
    voting for Donald Trump,
    that will REALLY Make America Great Again!

  10. Cloggie on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 12:32 pm 

    So there’s no way keep using your windmills and solar panels for more than 1 billion years max.

    1 billion years only, not 2? I am devastated! Tonight I am going to cry my pillow wet. That’s still a lot Seinfeld episodes though.

    BTW windmills are just too ugly, and
    a better source of cheap renewable power
    is old tires.

    If you add a nice piece of music, windmills are not that bad:

    …and besides, nobody can see them at sea. Offshore is all the rage lately in Europe:

    Oh and windmills actually work. Thorium? First see then believe. Perhaps in the 22nd century.

  11. peakyeast on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 2:32 pm 

    Yeah – of course – Thorium – lets build 45000 thorium reactors in 30 years. It wouldnt be possible with Uranium/Plutonium reactors where ALL our experience is – but an untested, prototype grade reactor system – Yeah that is much easier to do.

    If I see 15.000 thorium nukeplants with verified safe designs being built on a 10 year schedule at the end of this year – and it actually happens without 100% overrun of time and money – then OK – I may change my opinion.

  12. peakyeast on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 2:35 pm 

    Oh and dont forget the extraction, refining and transportation also has to be in place – as well as a truly global expert engineering army + regular army to catch all the problems.

  13. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 7:15 pm 

    They already ran an authentic junior-size
    Liquid Thorium Reactor in the 1970’s.

    Ran like a top. Produced electricity too.

    Nixon shut it down, he was the first in
    a long list of scumbag presidents.

    It worked great, so Nixon shut it down,
    got the reactor smashed with hammers,
    burned up the research notes,
    fired all the researchers, and paid hit men
    who killed all their grandchildren.

    The reason Nixon did this is because
    his mafia buddiez were all ready to
    roll over at a scam Uranium “breeder”
    project that he funded instead.

    His buddiez made out big timez pally.
    Dey made way way more,
    dan dat heist at Foist Nashanal Bank.
    Dat one where Vinny lost a kneecap.

    Ya Dey loves dat breeda reacta project
    from dey good pal Nixon.

    Oh it didn’t woik but dey drove truckloads
    of money outta there.
    First B

  14. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 24th Mar 2018 7:19 pm 

    First Bank looked like small potatoez
    after dat phony uranium breeder reactor

    Nuttin came close, til Bush junior
    crashed da whole economy an
    den Bush an his buddiez paid us off
    wit a couple trillion, an We is da ones
    who caused da problem!

    After dat We is retired, but our kids
    is plannin da next big scam.

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