Saudi Arabia may be the region’s top hydrocarbon producer, but it is also one of the largest consumers of energy resources. The situation is such that the Kingdom is looking to diversify its energy mix in the face of rapidly growing demand for electricity to meet the country’s mounting energy needs. Nuclear power has emerged as one of the most viable options at a time when the Kingdom requires sustainable energy sources to drive its ambitious march to the future.
Currently Saudi Arabia consumes over one-quarter of its oil production to power its electricity plants, according to World Nuclear Association estimates. Growing energy needs mean that much of the Kingdom’s oil production will be consumed domestically by 2030 if alternative options are not in place by then.
Thankfully, Saudi Arabia has taken a step towards self-sufficiency in nuclear power at the right time as the world is looking to a future beyond hydrocarbons, and volatility risks associated with this depleting resource continue to rock global markets. The Kingdom plans to build two large nuclear power reactors as part of a program to deliver up to 16 nuclear power plants over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than US$80 billion.
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Critics may be quick to point out that there are countries that are shutting down their nuclear energy plants and shifting towards other alternative energy sources. Before we look at such an aspect, it is important to understand that these are countries that are in a self-sustaining position with regards to the renewable energy sector with adequate technical knowhow and the availability of such resources, and are, therefore, well placed to replace their nuclear energy assets. It must be remembered that Saudi Arabia is also prioritizing its focus on renewable energy by establishing solar plants in the Kingdom. This country is blessed with year-round sunshine, which makes solar energy a viable option that fits in with the Kingdom’s plans to diversify energy sources. But this is an area with its own limitations as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, as the Kingdom faces climatic and weather challenges such as dust storms and humidity, which could seriously undermine the efficacy of this seemingly attractive option.
Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is best fitted to meet the current state of urgency as it is capable of meeting the Kingdom’s energy needs nonstop for the next 50 to 60 years, once a plant is commissioned. It certainly involves substantial investment but that is something that will eventually pay for itself.
Then there are, of course, constraints such as those related to infrastructure and regulatory framework. Since this is an entirely new area that the country is stepping into, it would be expected that the Kingdom would adopt regulatory frameworks based on international best practices in these aspects.
At this point of time, Saudi Arabia can learn from the experiences of countries such as the European nations, the US and Russia, which have well established and time-tested policies and regulatory frameworks on nuclear energy. These can be customized to meet the Kingdom’s requirements. The priority must also be to put in place risk plans, and training and knowledge enhancement platforms to secure a safe, secure and sustainable civil nuclear power program in Saudi Arabia.
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