DUBAI: Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia may mine and enrich uranium to fuel power plants if it embarks on a civilian nuclear energy program, a consultant preparing a draft nuclear strategy for the kingdom said late on Wednesday.
The United Nations has just slapped a fourth round of sanctions on Saudi regional rival Iran for refusing to halt enrichment, which with further refinement can yield materials for weapons.
Western powers fear Iran is using its nuclear program to develop weapons, while Tehran says it needs power generation to meet rapidly rising demand.
Saudi Arabia would want to play a role in as many of the stages of generating nuclear power as possible eventually, said David Cox, president for energy at the UK branch of Finnish management consultancy Poyry.
“Enrichment could happen there and the same with mining uranium,” Cox said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
“But outsourcing will happen initially.”
Earlier this month, Saudi’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy appointed Poyry to help prepare a draft of the national vision and high-level strategy in the area of nuclear and renewable energy.
The kingdom instructed Poyry to evaluate the economic and technical feasibility of its involvement in all stages of the nuclear power generation cycle, Cox said.
“They want to be involved in as many aspects as possible and our study is to evaluate what part of it is possible at a reasonable economic cost,” he added.
“The study we are conducting right now will be completed in a couple of months and includes an overall strategy from technical, economical and institutional dimensions for starting the development of nuclear plants.”
Saudi neighbor the United Arab Emirates became the first country in the Gulf Arab region to embark upon a nuclear power generation program last year. But the UAE decided from an early stage to import fuel for the plants, as it sought to reassure the international community it had no military intentions with its program.
The UAE received the blessing of ally the United States for its program. The two signed a nuclear cooperation agreement and US firms bid for contracts to build its nuclear fleet.
When the Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose grouping of Gulf Arab states, announced in 2006 it was studying developing a joint nuclear energy program, the announcement raised concern of a regional arms race between the bloc and Iran.
While the region sits on some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, it has struggled to keep up with rapidly rising power demand as petrodollars have fuelled a Gulf-wide economic boom.
Some of the world’s largest oil exporters burn oil for power at home, when they would prefer to export the fuel to boost revenues.
Saudi Arabia saw power demand grow by more than 8 percent last year. Total demand was expected to grow to more than 60,000 megawatt (MW) by 2020 from around 40,000 MW current capacity.
Without reducing the rate of energy consumption growth, the kingdom could see oil available for export drop some 3 million barrels per day (bpd) to less than 7 million bpd in 2028, Khalid al-Falih, the chief executive of state oil firm Saudi Aramco, said earlier this year.
Middle East and North Africa countries including Saudi Arabia have potential for a large number of uranium deposits, according to recent research by the Jackson School of Geosciences University of Texas. Those could supply the raw material for nuclear power generation.
Any program the kingdom embarks upon would take years to complete, said Philipp Elkuch, president of the nuclear energy business group at Poyry.
“Nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is really a long term strategy that can span 10-20 years from now, while renewable energy can be deployed much faster,” Elkuch told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia and the United States signed a nuclear cooperation deal in 2008. France said in 2009 it was close to finalizing a civilian nuclear agreement. The kingdom has also talked to Russia about nuclear cooperation.
Any program would likely be similar in value and size to the UAE’s plan, Elkuch said. The UAE’s deal for South Korean companies to build a fleet of four nuclear reactors was worth up to $40 billion.
“Nuclear energy is an expensive option, and although there is no cost estimate for Saudi Arabia they would probably have to invest a similar amount to the UAE,” said Elkuch.