Why Saudi Arabia Wants to Bank on Nuclear Power

Published December 18th, 2017 - 01:09 GMT
Saudi Arabia is ahead of the curve in paving the way for a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy, and nuclear power is at the top of its agenda. (Shutterstock)
Saudi Arabia is ahead of the curve in paving the way for a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy, and nuclear power is at the top of its agenda. (Shutterstock)

Of all the energy sources that are set to replace hydrocarbons, nuclear is uniquely positioned to take the lead in the global transition to a low-carbon economy as it alone meets all of the above-mentioned criteria, being clean, safe and able to provide the planet with affordable baseload power.

The benefits of nuclear power are becoming ever more widely recognized as an increasing number of countries are embracing nuclear power, not least in the Middle East, where states as diverse as the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and others are in various stages of developing their own national nuclear programs.

In announcing its ambitious plans to build up 17.6 GWe of installed nuclear capacity by 2032, Saudi Arabia is ahead of the curve in paving the way for a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy, which experts see as being part of a major global shift. In the words of Khalid Biankhr, assistant director of Applied Geology, Head of Science and Technology Unit, Geological Survey Authority in Saudi Arabia, “It can be said that this is a global trend, not just Saudi Arabia. There is a global trend towards reducing the use of traditional sources of energy from petroleum and coal, or "fossil fuels," because the burning of fossil fuels generates environmental problems such as the rise of carbon dioxide levels.

“International treaties, the most recent of which held in Paris, emphasize the reduction of harmful gas emissions because of their negative impact on the global climate. In order to achieve this, there is a need to build a mix of energy that is gradually activated, and the trend now is shifting towards alternative energy that is environmentally friendly, such as nuclear and renewable energy.”

These nuclear capacities should go a long way towards meeting the goals set forth in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy, namely bringing the share of oil and gas in the country’s energy mix down to 40% from the current 75%. Says Biankhr, “We are seeking to create a sustainable economy and community development and therefore we need to diversify sources of energy instead of relying on traditional energy sources like oil and gas, and in this case, the most important and efficient source of energy is nuclear energy.”

This transition will need to happen against a rising demand for electricity, the Kingdom’s per-capita energy consumption having grown by nearly 150% over the past decade (World Bank data) and with the trend set to continue as Saudi’s booming businesses and consumers’ need to stay connected at all times are putting an extra strain on the country’s electricity grid.

Hamid Al Saqqaf, director of independent production projects at Saudi Electric Company, explains, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a continuously elevating demand on electricity. In 2015, we had about 62,000 MWe in demand, and even though there currently seems to be a decrease in the amount of load, the growing demand for energy requires the introduction of nuclear energy as a means to achieve the baseload.”

The ability to supply baseload power — the power needed 24/7 to support any economy’s vital operations — is what sets nuclear apart favorably from other renewables such as wind and solar, which, due to their intermittent nature, are inherently unable to generate power day and night, day in day out, rain or shine.”

On the financial side, nuclear also proves to be the smart choice in the long run. As Al Saqqaf points out, “The operating costs for nuclear power plants are much less than for from fossil fuel-powered plants. Nuclear fuel produces more energy and at a lower price [than a corresponding amount of fossil fuel].”

In fact, a single nuclear fuel pellet weighing less than 5 grams produces as much energy as 270 kg of oil or 450 kg of coal. Furthermore, nuclear fuel, in marked contrast to fossil fuel, is not subject to wild price fluctuations, further contributing to its stability.

No less impressive are nuclear power’s green credentials as a non-CO2-emitting energy source. Suffice it to say, over the past 45 years all of the world’s nuclear power plants have prevented 45 gigatons in CO2 emissions, which is equivalent to taking 400 billion cars off the roads.

Finally, due to the sheer scope of technical and scientific breakthroughs it drives, and the breadth of peaceful nuclear applications, the development of the national nuclear program will have a significant positive impact on the Kingdom’s future.

As Dr. Ali Al Ghaloud, professor at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, notes, “Nuclear has peaceful uses that can help in the national transformation, such as environmental studies, agriculture, water-use efficiency, fertilizer efficiency, insect control, and so on.”

All of this means that, as it’s preparing to launch the vendor selection process for its first nuclear power plant, Saudi Arabia stands everything to gain from harnessing nuclear as a source of safe, clean, affordable and stable energy to power, and a driving force behind the country’s economic growth and innovation leadership into the 21st century. 

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