Saudi Arabia is pressing ahead with its ambitious plans to develop nuclear power to meet rising electricity demand and save oil for export. But the outlook for other Arab states is less promising because of political turmoil and a lack of financial resources. The Saudis have built a foreign assets cushion of around $500 billion from oil exports. It has used this immense wealth to buy its way out of trouble; for instance, heading off pro-democracy protests with massive social spending in recent years. But, the Middle East Economic Digest observed, “a more serious set of challenges now faces the kingdom that threaten to be even more destabilizing. “Inefficient and wasteful energy consumption, coupled with a rising population, is leading the kingdom to burn even more of its natural resources at home rather than selling them abroad and adding to the proceeds of the half-trillion-dollar cash pile. “Unless action is taken, the kingdom could find it needs the oil price to be $320 a barrel by 2030 just to balance the budget,” the weekly, published in the United Arab Emirates, warned. Nuclear power is seen as the solution. But, as MEED stressed, “time is of the essence.”
For one thing, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Egypt, have no wish to lag any further behind Iran and Israel in developing nuclear technologies. In 2010, the King Abdallah Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy, known as KAcare, was established to oversee the gulf state’s nuclear program under its president, Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, who was accorded ministerial powers. KAcare consultant Ibrahim Babelli said in 2010 it took 3.4 million barrels of oil equivalent a day — known as boe/d — to power electricity generation. This is expected to more than double by 2028 to 8.3 million boe/d.
The aim of the Saudis’ $100 billion nuclear program is to achieve an electricity output of 110 gigawatts by 2032. The Financial Times reports that in 2009, the latest data available, Saudi electricity capacity was 52GW from 79 power stations. At least 16 nuclear reactors, each costing around $7 billion, are planned, with the first producing by 2019. Some estimates state the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter, will burn as much as 1.2 million barrels of oil daily on electricity production, almost double the 2010 total, to meet domestic and industrial demand. This is crucial, as the Saudis are driving to build an industrial infrastructure to sustain the economy when the oil fields run down. Some have already begun to decline. For total reliance on nuclear power, Babelli says, 40-60 reactors would be needed by 2030. That’s four-six reactors per year from 2020. “That’s stretching it,” he said. “The answer is an energy mix.”
That means fossil fuels will still be needed, probably as the primary energy source, while wind, solar and nuclear power capabilities are developed. KAcare is developing solar power projects that MEES estimates should produce 41GW within 20 years with geothermal and waste-to-energy systems providing 4GW. The Emirates, which launched its nuclear energy program in 2009, is the most advanced in the Arab world, with Saudi Arab running second. The United Arab Emirates’ $30 billion program — $10 billion more than originally planned — is smaller in scale than that in Saudi Arabia. Both states benefit from political stability and vast financial reserves. Other regional states are less fortunate.
Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan all have announced plans to invest in nuclear energy to crank up electricity generation but all have lagged behind or scrapped their programs because of lack of funds or foreign investment. “Kuwait has the cash,” MEED reported, “but it’s been through eight governments in the past six years.” Sunni-ruled Bahrain, an island state neighboring Saudi Arabia, “continues to face destabilizing protests by its majority Shiite population and its budget is already in deficit.” Egypt remains convulsed by the political turmoil that ensued following the February 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, its economy sagging dangerously. In Jordan, heavily reliant on foreign aid, parliament recently scrapped nuclear plans as “hazardous and costly.” Failure to start boosting electricity generation for burgeoning populations in the coming decades almost certainly will mean more political upheavals.
Saudis, Emirates push nuclear power plans, UPI,July 26, 2012
See also the Quiet Nuclearization of the Middle East