Saudi Ara­bia has taken a step to­wards self-suf­fi­ciency in nu­clear power at the right time, says Dr. Malak Talal Al-Nory

Utilities Middle East - - COMMENTARY -

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 onequar­ter 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.

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.

Dr. Malak Talal Al-Nory is the Provost of Ef­fat Uni­ver­sity in Jed­dah, the chair of the Sci­en­tific Coun­cil and the vice chair of the Uni­ver­sity Coun­cil. She is also a Vis­it­ing Scholar at the Me­chan­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing Depart­ment in MIT in the United States.

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