Saudi Arabia is paving a nuclear path
With electricity demand in Saudi Arabia growing by 8 to 10 percent annually, the Kingdom is turning to nuclear to meet a twin challenge, how to diversify its electricity-generating mix while reducing reliance on fossil fuels
A few weeks ago, a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the headquarters of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in Saudi Arabia.
The mission which was conducted at the request of the Saudi government was meant to support Saudi Arabia’s efforts in preparing the necessary infrastructure for the introduction of nuclear into the Kingdom’s energy mix.
Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) missions are designed to assist IAEA member states in assessing the status of national infrastructure needed for the introduction of nuclear power. They are based on the IAEA Milestones Approach, with its 19 Infrastructure Issues, three Phases and three Milestones.
Prior to the mission, Saudi Arabia submitted a self-evaluation report covering all infrastructure issues and submitted this and supporting documents to the IAEA.
“The INIR mission was conducted in a cooperative and open atmosphere,” says team leader Jose Bastos, who is technical lead of the IAEA Nuclear Infrastructure Development Section. “Saudi Arabia is well placed to finalise its plans for construction of its first nuclear power plant.”
The IAEA team said that Saudi Arabia has made “significant progress” in the development of its nuclear power infrastructure. It noted the country has established a legislative framework and is carrying out comprehensive studies to support the next steps of the programme.
The team made recommendations and suggestions, including: coordination and development of outstanding nuclear-related policies and strategies; finalisation of the readiness of key organisations; and, completion of studies to prepare for future stages of the nuclear power programme.
The team presented a preliminary report on the conclusion of the mission. The IAEA publishes each INIR mission report on its website 90 days after its delivery to the member state, unless the state requests that the IAEA not do so.
In July last year, the Saudi government announced that it intends to add nuclear power to the country’s energy mix with the objective of diversifying and boosting its production capacity. KA-CARE announced last year that it was soliciting proposals for 2.9GW nuclear capacity from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
Saudi Arabia earlier announced plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years. A 2010 royal decree identified nuclear power as essential to help meet growing energy demand for both electricity generation and water desalination while reducing reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources.
“The vision of Saudi Arabia 2030 considers nuclear energy as an important source to support stability and sustainable growth,” says Khalid bin Saleh Al-Sultan, president, KA-CARE. “Deployment of nuclear energy aims for peaceful purposes, in a safe, secure and sustainable manner consistent with highest standards and best practices. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has requested the INIR mission to support this goal.”
“It was a valuable tool to pinpoint areas of improvement and ensure that the required infrastructures are in place before signing the contract for building the first nuclear power plant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia is determined to push ahead with its nuclear ambitions as neighbouring United Arab Emirates prepares to switch on its first of four nuclear reactors at the Baraka Nuclear Power Plant in Abu Dhabi.
Barakah One, the joint venture between Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and the Korea Electric Power Corporation representing the commercial and financial interests of the project, said last month that it has received an electricity generation licence from the UAE’s Department of Energy (DoE).
The move follows an announcement by ENEC in May that the start-up of the plant’s first nuclear reactor had been delayed, with operations expected to begin between the end of 2019 and early 2020.
The licence is a key regulatory requirement before the Barakah nuclear energy plant in Al Dhafra, Abu Dhabi, can start operations. Construction of the $25 billion project began in 2011.
Nawah Energy Company, ENEC and KEPCO’s operating and maintenance subsidiary, also needs to obtain an operating license from the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation, which regulates the industry according to international standards, to get the go-ahead for startup.
“Barakah One Company has demonstrated its commitment to all requirements,” says Awaidha Al Marar, the DoE chairman.
“One of the strategic objectives of the DoE is to guarantee energy security and sufficient supplies of energy, thus we look forward to strengthening our cooperation with ENEC and its subsidiaries ….. to meet the economic aspirations and needs of coming generations.”
The UAE is the first country in the region to have undertaken the project of generating electricity from nuclear energy -- one of the best solutions for the production of clean and efficient power to support UAE’s economic growth and diversification.
ENEC also announced last month that construction of the second nuclear power reactor is nearing completion with pre-operational testing well underway. ENEC said it had successfully completed hot functional testing on Unit 2 of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant.
This is a significant pre-operational testing process that incorporated all lessons learned from the same test on Unit 1, adding that as of end of June, construction of Unit 2 was 93% complete. ENEC says it worked closely with KEPCO to achieve the milestone in the testing and commissioning of Unit 2.
“Keeping construction progress approximately one year apart for each of the Units at Barakah makes it possible for us to implement all lessons learned from one Unit to the subsequent ones, in line with international best practices in the management of megaprojects,” says Mohamed Al Hammadi, CEO of ENEC.
Hot functional testing takes place over a number of weeks and consists of almost 200 individual and integrated tests performed on major systems to check their performance under normal operational conditions, without the presence of nuclear fuel in the reactor.
“The pre-operational commissioning phase of a nuclear energy plant is a complex and critical step towards starting to operate the plant. It is essential that it is tested under operational conditions without nuclear fuel to demonstrate that the highest standards of safety, security and quality are achieved,” says Al Hammadi.
Construction of Unit 2 began in April 2013, one year after Unit 1. Overall construction progress rate for the four Units is now more than 89%. ENEC said in July its first nuclear reactor would come online in late 2019 or early 2020.
“Nuclear is an important way to meet the fast-growing demand for energy in the region, taking into consideration a wish to diversify the energy sources and not rely solely on oil and gas,” says John Bernhard, former Danish ambassador to the IAEA.
Besides, the use of nuclear power is a significant element in an energy strategy which considers the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and implement commitments concerning climate change. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are beneficial from a climate change point of view, but will often not be sufficient to cover large energy demands.”
The progress at the UAE nuclear plant has emboldened Saudi Arabia in its resolve to add nuclear into its energy mix.
So far, Saudi Arabia has identified two possible sites for power stations, on the Gulf coast at Umm Huwayd and Khor Duweihin. Plans for small reactors for desalination are also well advanced.
“IAEA missions are of crucial importance when preparing for the introduction of nuclear power programs, especially in so-called newcomer states — those with little or no experience regarding nuclear power,” Bernhard says.
“IAEA experts can provide useful advice technically and with regard to nuclear safety and security. This is of great value both for the nuclear newcomer and the international community.”
Saudi Arabia has already signed a deal with South Korea to co-operate on nuclear power development. Included in the deal were plans for the construction of at least two small-to-medium-sized reactors in Saudi Arabia, with assistance from South Korean companies.
Other nuclear cooperation deals with countries able to build reactors have also been signed with the US, France, South Korea, China, Argentina and Russia — an agreement that was signed in June this year.
“Saudis have recognised that it is important for them to develop a nuclear power program,” says Lady Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. “The days of oil and gas are waning, and it is not appropriate for any country to rely on one source of energy — more and more of the world’s population is worrying about climate change.”
Nuclear is a carbon-free technology that provides continuous generation. “Even if a country is investing heavily in renewables, they have the problem of only being available when the sun shines and the wind blows,” says Judge, who is a member of the International Advisory Board for the development of nuclear energy in the UAE.
“Accordingly, back-up generation is needed to assure a continuous supply of energy. To me, it seems the Saudis, like Abu Dhabi, are perfectly situated to build a new nuclear power plant — they have the backing of the government and the funds to build a first-class plant, and they understand that it is inappropriate today to rely solely on oil.
“They also have the resources to bring in international experts and to conduct an effective public outreach program to educate the population about the benefits of nuclear energy.”
Governments in the region have made a number of arguments to justify their pursuit of nuclear energy, including the desire to meet a rapidly rising demand for electricity; safeguard oil exports; support economic growth; achieve greater security of supply; and reduce their carbon footprint. Nuclear energy can also help the MENA countries diversify their rather straightforward primary energy mix, which is currently heavily reliant on oil and gas.
Some MENA governments are full of praise for nuclear power. As put by ENEC recently, nuclear energy is “the right choice for the UAE because it is a safe, clean and proven technology, it’s commercially viable, and it delivers significant volumes of base-load electricity.”
“All countries seek to improve the wellbeing of their people by providing affordable and reliable supplies of electric power. Middle Eastern countries are no exception”, says William D Magwood, IV, NEA Director General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).
“Nuclear power plants can produce electricity at a large scale for decades without emitting harmful air pollution, enabling economic growth and improved quality of life. While some countries in the region could produce electricity using fossil fuels, doing so consumes valuable export commodities that can have greater value on the global market.
“In addition to addressing that concern, building nuclear power plants helps diversify the energy supply of any country, making their economies less vulnerable to disruption.”
A white paper commissioned by the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission concluded that “taking into account the social, health and environmental costs of fossil fuels relative to those same costs for nuclear, the economics of nuclear power are outstandingly attractive.”