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Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plans stall while UAE pushes on

Saudi Arabian energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz talks with US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm in Riyadh. Nuclear energy was apparently discussed but no details were given SPA
Saudi Arabian energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz talks with US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm in Riyadh. Nuclear energy was apparently discussed but no details were released
  • Kingdom’s talks with US continue
  • UAE deal with China still possible
  • Turkey, Egypt and Iran choose Russia

The UAE is moving ahead with its second nuclear power plant, but plans for Saudi Arabia’s first facility remain bogged down in controversy and delay. 

The kingdom is attempting to win US approval to enrich its own uranium and use US technology. 

Saudi Arabia said last year it would allow inspections of future nuclear facilities, in an effort to persuade Washington to allow the transfer of US reactor technology.

But Riyadh has yet to agree to the possibility of snap inspections, or give up on a stated desire to carry out its own uranium enrichment rather than buy from the international market.

A deadline for bidders to submit proposals for building Saudi Arabia’s Duwaiheen power plant on the Gulf coast between Qatar and the UAE passed on April 30. 

It is unclear if any of the key companies invited to bid – China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), EDF Group from France, Rosatom of Russia and South Korea’s Kepco – have presented offers.

Saudi Arabia is holding out for a deal with the US company Centrus Energy, which is at the forefront of next-generation reactor technology. Its “high-assay, low-enriched” uranium system, known as Haleu, uses smaller, longer-lasting reactor cores which are seen as more fuel efficient. 

Current nuclear reactors primarily run on uranium fuel enriched to up to 5 percent uranium-235 (U-235). High-assay low-enriched uranium is enriched to greater than 5 percent and less than 20 percent of the U-235 isotope.

This week, the Saudi energy minister agreed on a clean-energy cooperation programme with the visiting US energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, in a deal that Saudi media said included nuclear energy, though the stories gave no further details. 

A US-based defence analyst, Ted Karasik, commenting on the deal, said: “It certainly seems like a step in the right direction for US-Saudi development in this area.” 

The UAE is planning a second nuclear plant after the first, Barakah, went ahead in 2019 using South Korean technology and internationally sourced uranium. It is not yet clear who the UAE has in mind to build the facility’s four reactors. 

Abu Dhabi has launched a survey to analyse different available technologies, an industry source told AGBI.

But China looms large. Last year Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) signed agreements with China’s Nuclear Power Operations Research Institute, China National Nuclear Corporation and the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is unlikely to enrich its own uranium. 

Karasik said the Saudi leadership was raising the prospect of uranium enrichment as a bargaining chip in US talks. There are many moving parts though, he said, including possible normalisation of ties with Israel in return for a US defence pact. Nothing is likely to happen until after the US presidential elections in November. 

Riyadh would also be more likely to choose a country in the US sphere of influence to provide the technology. “It does look like the Saudis will go with a US or Western-allied country, as opposed to garnering the criticism of the West,” Karasik said.

However, Manuel Herrera, an Italy-based research fellow at Instituto Affari Internazionali, said China reaching an agreement with Riyadh remains on the table.

Saudi Arabia's industry minister Bandar Alkhorayef speaks with US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm in RiyadhSPA
Saudi Arabia’s industry minister, Bandar Alkhorayef, speaks with the US energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, in Riyadh

Beijing “not only offers nuclear technology at a better price than the US but does so with more lenient conditions”, he said. Many countries are beginning to see China and Russia as alternatives to Washington in this market, Herrera said.

Russia’s Rosatom is finalising Egypt’s first nuclear power plant in Dabaa, which is costing $25 billion, and has a build-owns-operate deal for the Akkuyu nuclear plant in Turkey, which is due to come online later this year.

Turkey says it is negotiating with Russia, China and South Korea for the construction of two more nuclear plants. The country wants to install 20GW of nuclear capacity by 2050. 

“Russia has become a very attractive supplier of nuclear technology and fuel, not only to the Middle East but to the whole world,” Herrera said. “In this way, they can finance part of their war effort in Ukraine.”  

Iran has also chosen its ally Russia for its first nuclear plant, in Bushire, while China has helped in the mining sector, such as developing the Saghand mine in Yazd. 

Earlier this year, Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, said that Tehran had started building four more nuclear power plants in the south, with a total capacity of 5GW, as it tries to produce a total 20GW of nuclear energy by 2041. 

Iran first gained nuclear enrichment knowledge via Pakistan, but the technology it obtained was from China. Now it seems keen to move forward with Russia. 

Dan Rahmat, an energy analyst, said: “Construction in all sites is ongoing, but there has been little progress due to lack of finance and political pressures.”

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