Nuclear reactors: Saudi Arabia thinking out loud

Saudi Arabia, Kingdom, nuclear power reactors, United States, U.S., energy secretary, Rick Perry, non proliferation standards,
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. © Gage Skidmore

Nuclear power stations could power much of Saudi Arabia’s electrical requirements, with U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry stating the United States is working closely with the kingdom to build nuclear power reactors in the country. One of the challenges facing these talks are tough non-proliferation standards.

In 2018, Perry has held a series of talks with several Saudi leaders including King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. One of the subjects that came up during these discussions was building two such power stations in the kingdom. This has been a long outstanding ambition for Saudi Arabia.

In the coming decades, Saudi Arabia wants to construct as many as sixteen nuclear power reactors at a cost of around $80 billion.

Despite the bonhomie between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, much of these discussions have been held up due to the Kingdom’s desire to relax nonproliferation standards. Saudi Arabia also wants to potentially enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium – technologies that could covertly be altered to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Naturally, non-proliferation advocates are not happy.

While Perry stated, there has been some progress on the non-proliferation standards, talks are not going as fast as either side would have hoped. He underscored the fact that being “perceived as very, very strong on non-proliferation was a most important message, globally,”. This clearly makes it a requirement for Saudi Arabia’s ambition to house nuclear power plants.

Parts of the discussions have also centered around the Saudi demand that any nuclear inspections not be intrusive for areas deemed sensitive by the kingdom.

These talks comes in the wake of media reports stemming from South Korea which said, KEPCO, its state-run utility along with France, the United States, China and Russia had been shortlisted to bid for a nuclear power project in Saudi Arabia; the winning bid will be declared and selected in 2019.

If Saudi Arabia succeeds in relaxing non-proliferation standards and safeguards, the United Arab Emirates could be free to break a deal it signed with the U.S. years ago and could potentially enrich uranium. The deal with UAE meets the “gold standard” and contains safeguards against enriching and reprocessing uranium.