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Wed 16 Jun 2010 08:59 PM

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Saudi may enrich uranium for nuclear power plants

Kingdom wants to play a role in as many of the stages of nuclear power.

Saudi may enrich uranium for nuclear power plants
NUCLEAR ENERGY: Saudi Arabia may mine and enrich uranium to fuel power plants if it embarks on a civilian nuclear energy programme. (Getty Images)

Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia may mine and enrich uranium to fuel power plants if it embarks on a civilian nuclear energy programme, a consultant preparing a draft nuclear strategy for the kingdom said 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 programme 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.

He said: "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.

He added: "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."

Cox said: "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 neighbour the UAE became the first country in the Gulf Arab region to embark upon a nuclear power generation programme 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 programme.

The UAE received the blessing of ally the United States for its programme. 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 programme, 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 rather 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 programme the kingdom embarks upon would take years to complete, said Philipp Elkuch, president of the nuclear energy business group at Poyry.

Speaking to Reuters, Elkuch said: "Nuclear energy in Saudi is really a long term strategy that can span 10-20 years from now, while renewable energy can be deployed much faster."

Saudi Arabia and the United States signed a nuclear cooperation deal in 2008. France said in 2009 it was close to finalising a civilian nuclear agreement. The kingdom has also talked to Russia about nuclear cooperation.

Any programme 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.

Elkuch said: "Nuclear energy is an expensive option, and although there is no cost estimate for Saudi they would probably have to invest a similar amount to the UAE." (Reuters)

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Dirk Heibel 10 years ago

You don’t have to conduct a big study to figure that it would be a disaster if Saudi would start with this business. Just have a look on the trade problems. Because of new implemented Regulations without any sense there are Trucks returning from the border everyday. Just imagine you need to deliver some Parts for this planned Nuclear facility and your shipment is rejected on the border because its not mention “MADE IN Country “on the parts. These kinds of things are happening every day and there is nothing you can do about it. In my opinion, if these guys are starting with this business, it’s more scary as if Iran would have a nuclear bomb.