Intelligent Energy

Saudi Arabia taps China for nuclear

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The desert kingdom generates over half its electricity using oil. That threatens its vital oil exports. Enter Beijing, the world's emerging nuclear power. Shouldn't solar also play a role?

With its energy consumption surging and its own power supply under threat, Saudi Arabia will rely increasingly on nuclear generation. To help it along, it has turned to the country that is emerging as the world leader in nuclear technology: China.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the two countries have agreed to jointly develop nuclear power plants, reactors, fuel and maintenance. The agreement follows a 6-day visit to Saudi Arabia by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The desert kingdom already has cooperative pacts in place with France, Argentina and South Korea.

China is aggressively pursuing a nuclear future within its own borders where, as we noted last month, it is currently building 27 nuclear reactors and could install 100 or more by 2030. That's nearly a quarter of the 432 reactors that operate in the world today. China sees nuclear as a carbon-free move away from the highly polluting coal-fired plants that currently generate 80 percent of its electricity. Beijing is a leading advocate of nuclear in the post-Fukushima era.

From Business Monitor International, which forecasts that Saudi Arabia will generate 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear by 2030.

Saudi Arabia today relies on oil-fired plants to generate 56 percent of its electricity, growing to 57.7 percent by 2015, when natural gas will contribute 42.1 percent, according to a report last summer from Business Monitor International (Siemens last week announced a $638 million deal to sell 10 gas turbines to the Saudis).

But as its population and economy expands, continued reliance on oil for power could undermine its vital oil export industry. BMI forecasts that power consumption will increase 5.5 percent annually through 2020 to 311 TWh (terawatt hours), from 189 TWh in 2010, while the population swells from 27.5 million to 33.5 million, and as the economy grows at an average annual clip of 3.85 percent.

"Nuclear energy is increasingly becoming the favored alternative, one that experts say could save more valuable crude for exports and help satiate local demand for power and water," the WSJ notes.

The country plans to spend over $100 billion on 16 new reactors by 2030. According to BMI, those 16 reactors would then furnish 20 percent of the country's electricity.

The agreement followed a 6-day trip by China's Premier Win Jiabao to Saudi Arabia. Photo from WEF via Wikimedia.

China's nuclear program covers a raft of technologies. It's building everything from conventional uranium-fueled water-cooled reactors - and the purportedly safer modern "passively cooled" versions of them -  to alternatives including reactors that run on thorium fuel and/or that use unconventional designs such as fast neutron, molten salt, pebble bed, and fusion.

Many nuclear experts regard the unconventional designs as potentially safer and more efficient than the uranium-fueled water cooled reactors that represent almost all of the world's commercial nuclear plants. China is pursuing the alternatives more intently and broadly than any other country.

According to the WSJ, Saudi Arabia is also discussing possible nuclear cooperation with the U.S., UK, Russia and the Czech Republic.

Shouldn't sunny Saudi Arabia turn towards solar power? The Middle East, for all its cloud-free days, trails much of the world in solar electricity. That could be changing. According to AMEinfo, Saudi Arabia plans to rely on solar for 10 percent of its power by 2020, mirroring plans put in place recently by Oman and Dubai.

But as China, Saudi Arabia and other countries are proving, the sun won't set any time soon on nuclear.

Desert photo from Wikimedia.

More China, Middle East and nuclear on SmartPlanet:

The future of nuclear:


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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure