Today’s energy consumers have gradually moved towards cleaner energy sources in response to climate change and environmental pollution. Demand for clean energy like natural gas and renewables has continued to grow, especially in developing markets like China and India. However, in the Middle East, a different source has gained traction. Demand for nuclear powered electricity has grown significantly, as generation capacity is expected to increase from 3.5 GW in 2018 to 14.5 GW by 2028 in UAE alone, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Oil-dependent gulf countries, faced with their dependence on oil for economic continuity, are working to diversify their energy portfolios to gradually move their economies off of fossil fuels. One such method is through investment in nuclear facilities. The United Arab Emirates had led the race for nuclear, constructing four new nuclear reactors with help from Korea Electric Power Corp. The first of the four, Unit 1 of the Barakah complex, is expected to come online in 2021, once it meets all regulatory requirements.
Despite multiple countries utilizing nuclear energy for electricity generation, many countries that wish for this source of energy will find it difficult getting the okay for a new facility if it’s from the United States. To build a new reactor, the United States government must deem your country trustworthy, meaning the country can be trusted to not contribute to nuclear proliferation. As well, the US requires the receiving country to agree to the 123 Agreement, which involves the US’ production, processing, and handling of nuclear fuel.
Saudi Arabia has wished for nuclear facilities to balance their energy portfolio for some time. The country has been in talks with the US government for a number of new reactors, stressing “whatever the Iranian’s build, we will build”. However, the country demands the ability to produce its own fuel. This would give Saudi Arabia the nuclear technology it needs, as well as the possibility to pursuit nuclear weapons, which would cause a huge international power shift. Prince Mohammed has previously stated that Saudi Arabia would pursue the development of armed nuclear capabilities in haste if Iran was found to possess weapons of mass destruction.
Because of this high probability of nuclear proliferation, the United States has continued to deny construction of nuclear facilities unless it agrees to import enriched fuel from elsewhere. Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Khalid Al-Falih has rebutted this, stating that it is only natural to develop its own uranium deposits, and would continue to pursuit its own production of atomic fuel.
Will Saudi Arabia be able to come to a deal with the current US administration? With the current political opinion in the US of Saudi Arabia, it is highly unlikely, especially after the PR fiasco involving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We can only hope that Saudi Arabia does not turn to Russia or China to fulfill its goal of nuclear capability.