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Saudi Arabia

Is Saudi Arabia going nuclear?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Saudi Arabia is taking active steps towards the construction of two power reactors. If built, they will be the country's first. The government agency in charge of the nuclear plans, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), sent a Request for Information (RFI) to potential suppliers in October, marking the first step towards a formal tender process. KACARE hasn't commented on the RFI process, but three sources confirmed it to Reuters1 and Rosatom's Alexei Likhachev said the RFI was sent to "a parade of vendors prepared to build a major nuclear power plant".2

KACARE president Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani said in September: "We are carrying out feasibility studies, technically and economically to build those nuclear reactors ... in addition to detailed technical studies for the selection of the best locations."3 Maher al Odan from KACARE said the Kingdom hopes to award reactor construction contracts by the end of 2018.4

The Kingdom's nuclear program has been slowly taking shape over the past decade:5

  • In 2006, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council announced the commissioning of a study on the development of nuclear power.
  • The Gulf Cooperation Council initiative stalled but in 2009 Saudi Arabia announced it was considering developing its own nuclear power program.
  • In April 2010, King Abdullah issued a royal decree stating that development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom's growing energy requirements.
  • In 2011, plans were announced for the construction of 16 power reactors, and WorleyParsons was commissioned to identify potential sites.6
  • Three sites were short-listed in 2013. An April 2013 timeline envisaged construction starting in 2016.6
  • The plan for 16 reactors was re-announced in September 2014, with a completion date of 2032.
  • In January 2015, the 2032 completion date was pushed back to 2040.
  • Korea Atomic Research Institute, and a subsidiary of South Korea's KEPCO, won contracts in 2015 and 2016 to carry out feasibility and planning studies.7
  • In July 2017, the Cabinet approved the establishment of a National Project for Atomic Energy.6

KACARE's website, which isn't updated as often as it should be, still promotes the pre-2015 plan to have 17.6 gigawatts of nuclear capacity (16 reactors) in operation by 2032.8 Reuters says the construction of more reactors beyond the first two is a "longer-term" project9 while pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman says the larger 16-reactor project "was abandoned due to costs and complexity."10


Companies, utilities and consortia from several countries ‒ South Korea, China, France, Russia, Japan and the US ‒ are interested in constructions contracts and other work for a Saudi nuclear power program.11 Several countries have been working hard for some years to put themselves in prime position.6,11 Saudi Arabia has nuclear cooperation agreements with numerous countries including South Korea, China, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Finland, Hungary, and Indonesia.6,12

It's anyone's guess what sort of lobbying is going on to secure Saudi reactor contracts and what sort of horse-trading is going on. And it's impossible to know how widespread corruption in Saudi Arabia13 ‒ and current efforts to address endemic corruption, if that's an accurate way of characterizing the recent detention of hundreds of Saudis14 ‒ will shape the nuclear contracting process.

Two committees in the US House of Representatives are investigating efforts by former US National Security Advisor Mike Flynn to enlist Russia's Rosatom in a deal to deliver nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia.10 An analysis by ProPublica details the efforts of Flynn and others to broker nuclear deals between potential suppliers (US, European, Arab, Russian and Chinese companies) and potential buyers in the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia).


Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its energy sources ‒ hence its plans to introduce nuclear power and to expand renewables and energy efficiency programs. There is no serious pretence that reducing greenhouse emissions is a significant policy driver. On the contrary, one reason repeatedly advanced for the nuclear program is to increase fossil fuel exports, and tied in with that is a push to do more value-adding by operating more oil refineries rather than exporting crude oil.15 KACARE states that alternative energy sources will ensure "longer-term availability of hydrocarbons for export"16 and will facilitate the use of petroleum "for higher value purposes and export".17 Likewise, Prince Turki al-Faisal said in 2016 that "we need to conserve as much oil as possible for export and sale."15

In addition to its plans for two large reactors, Saudi Arabia is also exploring options for small modular reactors (SMRs). And again, reducing greenhouse emissions isn't the driving force: one of the reasons given by KACARE for the interest in SMRs is their use for process heat applications including in petrochemical plants.3,18 Saudi Arabia has been in discussion with Argentina (which is building a 25 MW SMR), China (which is building a small high temperature gas-cooled reactor) and South Korea (which has designed and licensed a small pressurized water reactor ‒ but doesn't plan to build any at home).6

Does nuclear make sense in the context of efforts to diversify energy supply? Perhaps ... assuming that the costs were in the same ball-park as the South Korean-led project to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates (around US$20 billion ‒ though it is widely believed that the true cost of the project is higher). The nuclear program might also make some sense if numerous reactors are built; conversely, the significant start-up costs associated with establishing a nuclear workforce, a regulator and so on would make little sense if the program is limited to two reactors.

In an April 2015 paper, M.V. Ramana and Ali Ahmad compared electricity generation costs from nuclear reactors with natural gas, solar PV and concentrated solar power stations.19 They concluded that unless natural gas prices rise dramatically, that would remain the cheapest source of electricity generation, less than half as expensive as nuclear. Replacing oil based power plants with nuclear ‒ or natural gas ‒ would make economic sense.

Ramana and Ahmad write:19

"The real surprising result that came out of our analysis was that solar technologies are very competitive with nuclear reactors. The key point is that it would take at least a decade, quite possibly more, for a country like Saudi Arabia to generate its first unit of nuclear electricity, even if the decision were to be made tomorrow, and solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar technologies have both been experiencing dramatic declines in prices. Based on current trends, the cost of electricity from solar plants would become cheaper than from nuclear plants around the end of this decade or soon after in areas like the Middle East with ample sunshine. Nuclear reactors, in contrast, are not becoming cheaper. Some studies find evidence of "negative learning" wherein nuclear costs rise as more reactors are constructed."

The paper by Ramana and Ahmad was written less than three years ago but it is already out of date. They cite an estimate of US$11 billion for the two-reactor V.C. Summer project in South Carolina. But estimates for that project ‒ which was abandoned in mid-2017 ‒ rose to US$25 billion including interest, or US$18 billion excluding interest.20 Nor would nuclear power make economic sense if the reference point was the catastrophically over-budget EPR reactors being built in France or in Finland.

There is some dispute within Saudi Arabia about the economic viability of nuclear power. In May 2016, Ibrahim Babelli, acting deputy minister in the Ministry of Economy and Planning, said that not only was solar power cheaper, but it also lacked the security risks that come with nuclear power.21 Babelli said: "We have a God-given solution with solar, and with storage – especially CSP [concentrated solar power] with storage, that we can meet baseload demand. But we're only able to do that if we divorce our thinking and decision-making from what our international friends say because it's not for Saudi Arabia."

In May 2016, Saudi Arabia set a target of building an "initial" 9.5 GW of renewable power capacity by 2023, mostly solar and wind, as the "first stage" of a more ambitious program.22 As with the nuclear program, renewable energy targets have come and gone, they have been increased and decreased, brought forward and deferred ... all without a lot of action. But there has been some movement this year to promote the expansion of renewables.23-27 Thamer Al-Sharhan, managing director of ACWA, Saudi Arabia's leading renewable energy developer, said in January that he has heard a number of promising plans over the past six years that didn't materialize, but this time he has genuine optimism.26 Thirty renewable energy projects have been announced and work has begun on some of them.28

Saudi Arabia's first major tender for solar power (300 MW) has recently been completed. The lowest bid was just US1.79c/kWh or US$17.9/MWh – with no subsidies. Six of the seven lowest bidders offered prices below $US30/MWh. Giles Parkinson wrote in RenewEconomy: "The stunning offer ... represents a significant fall of 75 per cent in costs below those considered 'not credible' less than two years ago."29 Ironically, the lowest bid was from French utility EDF and UAE-based Mascar. EDF will be paid a guaranteed US$122.7/MWh for power from the Hinkley Point reactors it is building in the UK ‒ almost seven times greater than its solar bid.

A weapons agenda?

It is no secret that Saudi Arabia is leaving open the option of building nuclear weapons. For example:

  • In 2009, according to former senior US diplomat Dennis Ross, King Abdullah told him: "If they [Iran] get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons."30
  • In 2011, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former long-term head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency, said: "It is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia ... to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences."31
  • Nawaf Obaid from the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, and Special Counselor to Turki Al-Faisal, said in December 2013: "But what is clear, and here there should be no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding, is that if the Iranians are allowed to keep "an enrichment capability" that will over the medium- to long-term make them a de facto nuclear power, then Saudi Arabia, in keeping with its new emerging strategic doctrine, will have no choice but to go nuclear as well."32
  • In April 2014, Turki al-Faisal said: "Preserving our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with [Iran], including in nuclear know-how."33
  • In a May 2014 paper, Nawaf Obaid wrote: "Of course, if Iran gets nuclear weapons (with Israel already having a nuclear arsenal), KSA will be forced to follow suit. Thus, KSA should explore its nuclear provision options in order to prepare for a very likely nuclear Iran in the medium-to-long term. ... If such a scenario occurs, KSA will initiate a domestic nuclear weapons program within a yet to be specified time-period to counter Iran's acquisition. A credible nuclear strategy would mandate that a rapid nuclear deterrent be obtained in the short term and that the establishment of an indigenous nuclear weapons program take shape over the medium- to long-term."34
  • In May 2015, Turki al-Faisal threatened to match Iran's nuclear program: "Whatever the Iranians have, we will have too."35
  • In January 2016, Turki al-Faisal said: "In a speech I gave four years ago in the kingdom and subsequently reiterated, I said that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) must look at all the available options to meet the potential threat that will come from Iran – including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. I don't think we should close the door to ourselves before we see what is going to happen with Iran. And if that means that we go to develop nuclear weapons, then that is a choice that will have to be made by the GCC leadership, as I recommend, to meet that challenge."15
  • In June 2016, the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf, said the kingdom was keeping "all options ... on the table" in a confrontation with Iran.36

Regardless of intent, a nuclear power program would bring Saudi Arabia far closer to a weapons capability. The reactor-grade plutonium produced in the normal course of operation of a reactor can be used in weapons, or reactors can be operated on a short irradiation cycle to produce weapon-grade plutonium. In addition, a nuclear power program would necessarily entail the development of significant nuclear science and engineering expertise which could be redeployed to a weapons program. A nuclear power program could justify the acquisition of other technologies − such as enrichment and reprocessing technology, and research reactors − which might be put to use in a weapons program. (Argentina's INVAP is building a very low power research reactor in Saudi Arabia37 and an October 2017 agreement between KACARE and Russia's Rosatom envisages construction of another research reactor in the Kingdom.6)

There is a long-running debate about whether a nuclear power program or a nuclear research reactor program makes more sense for a would-be weapons state. Power reactors produce large amounts of fissile material in a short space of time and they can more easily be used to justify the development of enrichment technology or a large-scale reprocessing capability ... but nuclear power programs are very expensive. Research reactor programs are relatively cheap, and they often involve a small-scale reprocessing capability (hot cells) ... but the fissile material production rate is generally low. That debate may need reframing if small modular reactors are developed ‒ they might be the technology of choice for the modern proliferator.38

Most likely, Riyadh seeks to develop a latent nuclear weapons capability under cover of a peaceful program, but dedicated pursuit of nuclear weapons would need to weighed against potential problems such as worsening Saudi Arabia's security environment (e.g. by encouraging other states to build nuclear weapons), rupturing strategic ties with the US, damaging the country's international reputation and making the Kingdom the target of sanctions.39

A March 2017 analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security states that there is "little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities", motivated by Iran's nuclear program and the limitations of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the P5+1 and Iran.40 It further states that "Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term".

Clearly there is some interest in developing a latent or threshold weapons capability. But why would senior people in the Saudi regime say so openly? One answer is that the regime may be seeking to leverage formal defense commitments from the US, and greater access to conventional weapon systems such as the F-35 advanced fighter.41 The Trump administration is willing to expand conventional arms sales to Saudi Arabia42 ‒ but there's no evidence and little likelihood that the administration is motivated by a desire to stop Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons. Washington has reportedly rebuffed the formal defense pact sought by Saudi Arabia. Writing in The Nonproliferation Review, Tristan Volpe says that the threat to build nuclear weapons lacks plausibility given the rudimentary state of Saudi Arabia's nuclear industry.43 If that's the case, the threat will presumably be taken more seriously if and when Saudi Arabia has power reactors and a small army of trained nuclear experts.

Developing threshold capabilities

Earlier this year, KACARE president Hashim Bin Abdullah Yamani said Saudi Arabia is committed to international conventions and treaties as well as the guidance provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency.44 Such claims would be more compelling and comforting if they were true.

There are numerous indications that Saudi Arabia is steering its nuclear program in such a way as to lower the barriers to weapons production, and no contrary indications:

  • Saudi Arabia seems to be seeking to develop the capacity to build its own reactors.
  • It is working to deepen and broaden its domestic nuclear expertise.
  • As of July 2017, 183 countries had signed and 166 countries had ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Saudi Arabia has not signed or ratified the treaty.52
  • It does not have an Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which would allow for more intrusive inspections.
  • It is refusing to follow the UAE's lead and forego the option of developing enrichment or reprocessing technology.
  • It is seeking to develop its own uranium reserves despite the existence of plentiful, cheap uranium on the international market.

At least two nuclear cooperation agreements ‒ with South Korea and China ‒ contain language about technology transfer suggesting Riyadh may be seeking to develop the capacity to build reactors. The agreement with South Korea concerning 'SMART' SMRs envisages significant technology transfer such as, in the words of the World Nuclear Association, "a partnership to establish knowledge infrastructure in SMART technology fields, such as designing and building the reactors".6 Likewise, a 2017 China / Saudi agreement envisages "cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs [high-temperature gas-cooled reactors] built in Saudi Arabia."45

The March 2017 analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security states: "Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in developing an indigenous capability to manufacture nuclear reactors. KA.CARE, the national agency at the forefront of Saudi Arabia's nuclear agenda, has identified several steps within the nuclear fuel cycle as having high potential for local manufacturing, including fuel fabrication, processing, and enrichment. Going beyond the import of technologies, Saudi Arabia appears to have intentions to acquire intellectual property rights and become an exporter of small modular reactors (SMRs)."40

Saudi Arabia aims to train a largely local workforce to run its nuclear plants according to Noura Youssef Mansouri, a Saudi energy expert and a manager with Areva in Riyadh.46 The Institute for Science and International Security report states: "Overlooked by many experts evaluating Saudi Arabia's nuclear future is the fact that the country's nuclear workforce is increasing at a rapid pace in both quality and quantity. The academic nuclear engineering sector is growing substantially, constantly launching new graduate programs and expanding Saudi Arabia's five nuclear research centers."40

Prince Turki al-Faisal has clearly linked the build-up of nuclear expertise under the civil nuclear program with the desire to move towards a weapons capability. Following the July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, al-Faisal said "we have no illusions about our capabilities ... so that's why we began a very extensive training and skills acquisition program", and he noted that the 15-year sunset clause in the Iran deal was a key reason why "the Kingdom's program for capacity building on the issue of nuclear energy is so vital and necessary and important."15

KACARE has that said the country's intention is to oversee a large proportion of the fuel cycle domestically from the outset and to be 65% self-reliant by 2032. Nick Butler commented in the Financial Times: "Such an aspiration is valid under the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty but will inevitably provoke scrutiny. The decision contrasts with the choice by the UAE ‒ another state developing nuclear power capacity ‒ to buy from outside rather than seeking a fuel cycle capability of its own."47

Saudi Arabia is seeking "self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel" according to Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, head of KACARE.50 That includes exploitation of domestic uranium reserves. "We utilize the uranium ore that has been proven to be economically efficient," Yamani said.50

But exploitation of Saudi Arabia's uranium reserves ‒ which KACARE estimates at about 60,000 tonnes50 ‒ is the exact opposite of economic efficiency. It makes no economic sense whatsoever to be starting up a uranium industry from scratch when uranium is plentiful and cheap on the international market, with no likelihood of that situation changing in the foreseeable future.

Of course, "self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel" makes sense if the aim is to develop a threshold nuclear weapons capability.

Sensitive nuclear technologies

In 2008, Saudi Arabia and the US signed a 'Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation' in which Saudi Arabia stated its intent to rely on international markets for nuclear fuel and to not pursue sensitive nuclear technologies (enrichment and reprocessing).48 But a formal agreement between the two countries has not proceeded because of Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to forego enrichment and reprocessing.49

There is no indication that any other potential supplier states will insist on Saudi Arabia foregoing enrichment and reprocessing.

Saudi Arabia has commissioned at least one feasibility study on its potential involvement in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle; the engineering consulting firm found that mining and enriching domestic uranium deposits were among the feasible options.40

The primary purpose of the IAEA's low-enriched uranium bank ‒ opened this year in the city of Oskemen in Kazakhstan ‒ is to limit the spread of enrichment technology.51 But it won't stop countries intent on developing nuclear weapons, or a threshold weapons capability, from pursuing enrichment or refusing to forego the option of pursuing enrichment.


Saudi Arabia concluded a 'Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement' with the IAEA in 2009. But Riyadh only agreed to an earlier version of the 'Small Quantities Protocol' (SQP) and has yet to accept the modified SQP adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors in 2005. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has conspicuously failed to sign an Additional Protocol which would allow for more intrusive and wide-ranging IAEA inspections.53

Saudi Arabia, under its current SQP obligations, could secretly build enrichment technology and need only tell the IAEA 180 days before introducing nuclear material − R&D, mechanical testing of centrifuges, and testing with surrogate materials, need not be revealed.54

Canadian officials have expressed concerns about the potential for Saudi Arabia to pursue nuclear weapons. "Minimal safeguards are in place in SA [Saudi Arabia] to verify peaceful uses of nuclear energy ... and it has refused to accept strengthened safeguards," officials said in an assessment prepared for Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister in March 2012. "Many observers question SA's nuclear intentions, especially if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. As a result, SA does not meet Canada's requirements for nuclear cooperation."55

So will any suppliers insist on an Additional Protocol being in force as a precondition of nuclear supply? Not likely. The formal policy of Australia ‒ a potential uranium supplier ‒ is that customer countries must have an Additional Protocol in force. But Australia has a long history of putting uranium sales first and proliferation concerns last, so the policy might be waived ‒ just as Australia's policy of refusing sales to non-NPT states was waived for India. Or Saudi Arabia might do what India and others have done ‒ negotiate an Additional Protocol that is so weak it isn't worth the paper it is written on.

Proliferation in the Middle East

Iran's nuclear program was in part a response to those of Israel and Iraq. Saudi Arabia's program is motivated in part by those of its regional rivals. The UAE's agreement to forego enrichment and reprocessing could have tempered proliferation risks in the Middle East. But the UAE agreement is shaping up as an exception rather than the new norm ‒ such that the UAE itself is wavering on its commitment to forego enrichment and reprocessing.40,49

A Saudi Arabian nuclear program without a binding commitment to forego enrichment and reprocessing will further fuel regional proliferation risks. The Institute for Science and International Security states:56

"In the Middle East, the perceived strategic, political, and military advantages derived from having the ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weaponization levels or to separate plutonium will be too strong for many governments to resist, even in the absence of a full-blown nuclear weapons effort. This dynamic will severely challenge global nonproliferation regimes and agreements as more and more countries strive, overtly or covertly, to become members of "nuclear fuel club," or on the threshold of building nuclear weapons.

"The global community should anticipate a dramatic increase in state-sponsored nuclear proliferation activities, regardless of the fate of the JCPOA. Efforts to constrain such aspirations are critical. The net result of these events is that the world will soon face a greater proliferation danger from Iran and the spread of sensitive technologies in the Middle East may be stimulated by this new, dangerous norm legitimizing enrichment almost anywhere. The policy community must identify threats to the global export control regime and enact broader counterproliferation efforts to mitigate damages."

Export controls and broader counterproliferation efforts are indeed a must in the Middle East. But to date, all indications are that they will run a poor second to efforts to secure lucrative nuclear contracts.

Military conflict

Military conflict has been a recurring feature of Middle Eastern politics for decades and it isn't difficult to imagine military conflicts complicating and compromising nuclear power plants and associated facilities such as spent fuel stores. Since 2015, Saudi forces have intercepted missile attacks from Yemen on several occasions, including a missile attack on King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh in November 2017. "All airports, ports, border crossings and areas of any importance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be a direct target of our weapons, which is a legitimate right," the Houthi political office said in a statement on 7 November 2017.57

On 6 November 2017, the New York Times reported on the intercepted missile attack on the Riyadh airport: "Saudi Arabia charged Monday that a missile fired at its capital from Yemen over the weekend was an "act of war" by Iran, in the sharpest escalation in nearly three decades of mounting hostility between the two regional rivals. "We see this as an act of war," the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Jubair, said in an interview on CNN. "Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps." ... The accusations raise the threat of a direct military clash between the two regional heavyweights at a time when they are already fighting proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as battles for political power in Iraq and Lebanon. By the end of the day Monday, a Saudi minister was accusing Lebanon of declaring war against Saudi Arabia as well."58

Prince Turki al-Faisal said in 2016 that Saudi Arabia has "no illusions" about its limited nuclear security capabilities. "We know we have few capabilities in terms of human resources, so that's why we began a very extensive training and skills acquisition program," he said.15

A number of Middle Eastern countries (and the US) have developed their own response to the limitations of the IAEA safeguards system: bombing nuclear facilities suspected of being involved in covert weapons programs. Examples include the destruction of research reactors in Iraq by Israel and the US; Iran's attempts to strike nuclear facilities in Iraq during the 1980−88 war (and vice versa); Iraq's attempted strikes on Israel's nuclear facilities; and Israel's bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria in 2007.

Most of the above-mentioned attacks were directed at research reactors capable of producing plutonium for weapons, while Iraq attacked the partially-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in 1987. Israel has threatened to strike nuclear facilities in Iran in recent years. According to a cable released by Wikileaks, King Abdullah urged the US in 2008 to launch military strikes on Iran's nuclear program to "cut off the head of the snake".59

In time, nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia might be the targets of military strikes, either to prevent their use in a weapons program or simply as an act of war or terrorism.

Bennett Ramberg, a policy analyst in the US State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under President George H.W. Bush, wrote in 2014:60

"[W]arfare is rife with accidents and human error, and such an event involving a nuclear plant could cause a meltdown. A loss of off-site power, for example, could be an issue of serious concern. Although nuclear plants are copious producers of electricity, they also require electrical power from other sources to operate. Without incoming energy, cooling pumps will cease functioning and the flow of water that carries heat away from the reactor core ‒ required even when the reactor is in shutdown mode ‒ will stop.

"To meet that risk, nuclear plants maintain large emergency diesel generators, which can operate for days ‒ until their fuel runs out. The reactor meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in 2011 demonstrated what happens when primary and emergency operating power are cut.

"Such vulnerabilities raise troubling questions in the event of a war. Fighting could disrupt off-site power plants or transmission lines servicing the reactor, and could also prevent diesel fuel from reaching the plant to replenish standby generators. Operators could abandon their posts should violence encroach.

"Moreover, combatants could invade nuclear plants and threaten sabotage to release radioactive elements to intimidate their opponents. Others might take refuge there, creating a dangerous standoff. A failure of military command and control or the fog of war could bring plants under bombardment.

"Serious radiological contamination could result in each of these scenarios. And, though no one stands to gain from a radioactive release, if war breaks out, we must anticipate the unexpected. ...

"Wartime conditions would prevent emergency crews from getting to an affected plant to contain radiological releases should reactor containments fail. And, with government services shut down in the midst of fighting, civilians attempting to escape radioactive contamination would not know what to do or where to go to protect themselves."


1. Sylvia Westall and Reem Shamseddine / Reuters, 31 Oct 2017, 'UPDATE 3-Saudi Arabia takes first step towards nuclear plant tender – sources',

2. Artiom Korotaev / TASS, 5 Oct 2017, 'Russia, Saudi Arabia may develop nuclear cooperation',

3. Reuters, 18 Sept 2017, 'Saudi Arabia says still examining options for nuclear power plants',

4. Reuters, 11 Oct 2017, 'Saudi Arabia to award nuclear reactor contract by end 2018 – official',

5. Nuclear Monitor #791, 18 Sept 2014,

6. World Nuclear Association, 'Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia', Updated October 2017,

7. 10 June 2016, 'KEPCO E&C secures $55 mn project on pre-project safety test on Saudi’s nuclear plant',

8. KACARE, accessed 11 Nov 2017,

9. Reem Shamseddine and Jane Chung, 14 Sept 2017, 'Exclusive: Saudi Arabia plans to launch nuclear power tender next month – sources',

10. Dan Yurman, 17 Sept 2017, 'Saudi Arabia To Release RFI for 2.8 GWe of Nuclear Power',

11. Ghazala Yasmin Jalil, 17 Nov 2017, 'Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Power Ambitions',

12. World Nuclear Association, 26 Oct 2016, 'Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia agree to nuclear cooperation',



15. Dan Drollette Jr, 2016, 'View from the inside: Prince Turki al-Faisal on Saudi Arabia, nuclear energy and weapons, and Middle East politics', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 72, Issue 1,

16. KACARE,, accessed 11 Nov 2017

17. KACARE, accessed 11 Nov 2017, 'Saudi National Atomic Energy Project SNAEP',

18. KACARE, 'Saudi National Atomic Energy Project SNAEP',, accessed 11 Nov 2017

19. M. V. Ramana and Ali Ahmad, April 2015, 'Saudi Arabia’s Expensive Quest for Nuclear Power',

20. John Downey, 22 Aug 2017, 'Senators told saving V.C. Summer project could take 'a miracle'',

21. LeAnne Graves, 25 May 2016, 'Saudi minister prefers solar potential over nuclear energy',

22. Moritz Borgmann, 11 May 2016, 'Saudi Arabia’s amazing new renewables target: 9.5GW by 2023',

23. National Renewable Energy Program (NREP),

24. Renewable Energy Project Development Office,

25. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 22 Feb 2017, 'Saudi Arabia makes first steps in 10GW renewable energy rollout',

26. Ilias Tsagas, 18 Jan 2017, 'Saudi Arabia to focus on solar, wind in $US50bn clean energy plan',

27. Neha Bhatia, 1 Oct 2017, 'Saudi eyes international support for nuclear project plans',

28. 18 April 2017, Riyadh Reveals 30 Projects to Produce Renewable Energy',

29. Giles Parkinson, 5 Oct 2017, 'Stunning new low for solar PV as even IEA hails "age of solar"',

30. Chemi Shalev, 30 May 2012, 'Dennis Ross: Saudi King Vowed to Obtain Nuclear Bomb After Iran',

31. Ali Ahmad, 17 Dec 2013, 'The Saudi proliferation question', Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,

32. Nawaf Obaid, 3 Dec 2013, 'The Iran deal: a view from Saudi Arabia',

33. 24 April 2014, 'Saudi Prince Urges Mideast Counterbalance to Iran's 'Nuclear Know-How'',

34. Nawaf Obaid, 27 May 2014, 'A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine',

35. David E. Sanger, 13 May 2015, 'Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability,' New York Times,

36. Nawaf Obaid, 29 June 2015, 'Saudi Arabia is preparing itself in case Iran develops nuclear weapons',

37. Juan Pablo Ordoñez (INVAP, Argentina), 2013,

38. For a discussion on the proliferation potential of SMRs, see M.V. Ramana, Feb 2014, 'Resource Requirements and Proliferation Risks Associated with Small Modular Reactors', Conference Paper: American Association for the Advancement of Science 2015 Annual Meeting,

39. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton, and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for New American Security, February 2013,

40. Sarah Burkhard, Erica Wenig, David Albright, and Andrea Stricker, 30 March 2017, 'Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Ambitions and Proliferation Risks',

41. Tristan A. Volpe, 10 March 2017, 'Atomic inducements: the case for "buying out" nuclear latency', The Nonproliferation Review,

42. '2017 United States–Saudi Arabia arms deal', accessed 22 Nov 2017,

43. Tristan A. Volpe, 10 March 2017, 'Atomic inducements: the case for "buying out" nuclear latency', The Nonproliferation Review,

See also Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton, and Matthew Irvine, "Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?" Center for New American Security, February 2013,

44. Saudi Gazette report, July/Aug 2017, 'Atomic Project will optimize use of energy sources: Yamani',

45. Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, 21 March 2017, 'King Salman's Visit Deepens Sino-Saudi Cooperation',

46. Brooke Anderson, 15 Sept 2017, 'Saudis Make Push for Nuclear Energy',

47. Nick Butler, 15 Feb 2015, 'Saudi Arabia's nuclear ambitions',

48. US State Department, 16 May 2008, 'U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation',

49. Yoel Guzansky, 19 Feb 2017, 'The UAE's Nuclear Push and the Potential Fallout for the Middle East',

50. Times of Israel, 1 Nov 2017, 'Oil-rich Saudi Arabia plans dramatic shift to nuclear power',

51. Reuters, 29 Aug 2017, 'UN Nuclear Watchdog Opens Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan',

52. Arms Control Association, updated July 2017, 'The Status of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Signatories and Ratifiers',

53. IAEA, 'Status of the Additional Protocol ‒ Status as of 7 July 2017',

54. Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson, 27 March 2014, 'Nuclear Kingdom: Saudi Arabia's Atomic Ambitions',

55. Nuclear Threat Initiative, 29 Jan 2013, 'Saudi Atomic Aims Worry Canada',

56. David Albright, Andrea Stricker, Sarah Burkhard, and Erica Wenig, 12 Sept 2017, 'Strengthening the Counter-Illicit Nuclear Trade Regime in the Face of New Threats: A Two-Year Review of Proliferation Threats Associated with the Middle East',

57. Christopher M. Blanchard, 14 Nov 2017, 'Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations', Congressional Research Service,

58. New York Times, 6 Nov 2017, 'Saudi Arabia Charges Iran With 'Act of War,' Raising Threat of Military Clash',

59. The Jerusalem Post, 28 Nov 2010, 'Leak: 'Saudi King on Iran: Cut Off the Head of the Snake',

60. Bennett Ramberg, 16 April 2014, 'The Chernobyl factor in the Ukraine crisis',

Saudi Arabia's expensive quest for nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
M. V. Ramana and Ali Ahmad − Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University

In the midst of all the news in recent weeks over the deal with Iran, it would have been easy to miss the news that another Middle Eastern state is moving towards acquiring its own nuclear reactors − Saudi Arabia.

In March 2015, following a meeting in Riyadh between South Korean president Park Guen­hye and Saudi's newly­crowned King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA­CARE) signed a memorandum of understanding to, inter alia, carry out a preliminary study to review the feasibility of constructing Korean Small Modular Reactors in Saudi Arabia.1 Later the same month, along with Argentina this time, Saudi Arabia set up a joint venture company to develop nuclear technology for Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program.2

Saudi Arabia has had a long-standing, although limited, interest in nuclear technology and these agreements are just the latest developments in that history. Other countries that have signed agreements with Saudi Arabia include France and China. Many more in the nuclear industry are hopeful of profiting from the Gulf country's interest. As Westinghouse chief executive Danny Roderick remarked in 2013, "We see Saudi Arabia as a good market for us."3

The stated arguments for nuclear construction are mostly familiar. As a royal decree from April 2010 put it in the case of Saudi Arabia: "The development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom's growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources."4

Economic comparison

One further argument that is sometimes offered is economic competitiveness: as the President of KA-CARE stated in 2012, "nuclear energy is in many respects competitive with fossil fuels for electricity generation though the initial capital expenditure might be high."5

This is a somewhat strange argument to be making. Nuclear power has been struggling to compete in electricity markets around the world and it is hardly likely that in a country with no experience in building nuclear reactors, this world wide trend will suddenly be broken. Therefore, we decided to evaluate these arguments by examining the economics of nuclear power in the case of Saudi Arabia.6 Here we summarize our results.

We compared the electricity generation cost from nuclear reactors with three alternatives: natural gas based power plants, solar energy from photovoltaic cells and concentrated solar power stations. What we found was that unless natural gas prices rise dramatically, that would remain the cheapest source of electricity generation − nuclear electricity would be more than twice as expensive than that produced by gas. The reason is simple: the very high capital cost of constructing a nuclear reactor, typically running into several billions of dollars. For example, the latest estimate for one of the three ongoing projects in the United States, in which two new 1,117-MW reactors are being built near Jenkinsville, S.C., is $11 billion.7 Electricity from gas would continue to be cheaper even if a relatively high carbon cost (even above $150/ton-CO2 in some scenarios) were imposed.

This large cost difference also negates the oft-made point about the foregone opportunity cost that is said to result from Middle Eastern countries consuming their natural gas resources instead of exporting these. It turns out that when the costs of liquefying and shipping of natural gas are taken into account, a country like Saudi Arabia should be assured of prices well above the current and historical global average for decades before replacing a natural gas plant with a nuclear reactor becomes an economically sound choice. The downward pressure caused by U.S. shale gas expansion and the volatility of the natural gas market does not allow for reasonable confidence in such a high gas price − certainly not enough to sink in billions of dollars into nuclear reactors and natural gas liquefaction facilities.

But in the case of oil, our analysis showed that it does make economic sense to shut down oil based power plants and replace those with nuclear reactors − or natural gas. But Saudi policy makers may have already realized that and nearly 100 percent of installed capacity in recent years is based on natural gas.

Solar power

The surprising result that came out of our analysis was that solar technologies are very competitive with nuclear reactors. The key point is that it would take at least a decade, quite possibly more, for a country like Saudi Arabia to generate its first unit of nuclear electricity, even if the decision were to be made tomorrow, and solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar technologies have both been experiencing dramatic declines in prices.8 Based on current trends, the cost of electricity from solar plants would become cheaper than from nuclear plants around the end of this decade or soon after in areas like the Middle East with ample sunshine.

Nuclear reactors, in contrast, are not becoming cheaper. Some studies9 find evidence of "negative learning" wherein nuclear costs rise as more reactors are constructed.10 Past reactor construction projects have often taken longer and have cost more than initially projected; indeed, significant escalation can be taken as inevitable given the nuclear industry's tendency to under-estimate costs and construction times. The best recent example comes from Olkiluoto in Finland, where just the losses that Areva has accrued when compared to the initial contract price exceeds 5 billion euros.11 Commissioning of the reactor has been delayed by nearly a decade compared to initial projections.

The thirteen years or more that it could take to get the Olkiluoto plant to generate electricity is exceptionally long, but the average period it takes to construct a nuclear reactor anywhere in the world is about eight years. This does not include the time spent before construction on building infrastructure, regulatory activities, and so on. In general, one can assume that it would take a decade or even two for a nuclear plant to go from planning to commissioning.

Small modular reactors

The specific reactor design that was the subject of the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and South Korea is called the SMART, one of the many designs that are called small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs, with power outputs of less than 300 MWe, are being promoted by nuclear establishments in many countries.

The term small is used to indicate that the power level is much lower than the average power delivered by currently operating reactors. Modular means that the reactor is assembled from factory-fabricated parts or "modules". Each module represents a portion of the finished plant built in a factory and shipped to the reactor site. Modularity is also used to indicate the idea that rather than constructing one large reactor, the equivalent power output will be generated using multiple smaller reactors that allow for greater tailoring of generation capacity to demand.

SMRs such as the SMART are likely to be even more expensive ways of generating electricity than the large nuclear reactors being built today. Small nuclear reactors are cheaper in absolute terms, but they also generate less electricity. When the two factors − smaller overall cost and smaller generation capacity − are taken together, the cost per unit of electricity for small reactors generated turns out to be higher that for large reactors. This is why reactors became larger and larger over the 1960s to the 1980s/1990s. Thus, it seems likely that SMRs will lose out on the economies of scale that standard sized (roughly 1000 MW) reactors benefit from.

SMR proponents claim that because new reactor designs are different, the comparison with traditional reactor costs is invalid and the scaling law does not hold. They also claim that even if there are diseconomies of scale, these can be compensated by the economic advantages accruing from modular and factory construction, learning from replication, and co-siting of multiple reactors.12

Despite these claims, detailed and carefully conducted interviews showed that even experts drawn from, or closely associated with, the nuclear industry expect these reactors to cost more per kW of capacity than currently operating reactors.13 Therefore, if nuclear power based on large reactors is likely to be expensive, then electricity from the SMART project in Saudi Arabia will be even more non-competitive.

Unless, of course, there are large subsidies involved. In the case of South Korea's deal with the United Arab Emirates, South Korea seems to have subsidized the project substantially; some have estimated the deal with the UAE at being about 20 per cent beneath the industry average.14 Not surprisingly, the deal was criticized within South Korea as commercially weak and that future customers will demand similar terms.15

While there is a long history of systematic under-bidding in nuclear projects, especially in the case of countries with ambitious nuclear programs, this sort of subsidization can be done only for the first one or two projects, and cannot be the basis of a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to all the problems of nuclear power, solar power is also very appropriate to Saudi Arabia. There is substantial overlap between the electricity demand and solar insolation patterns16, and there will be little or no need for constructing expensive storage facilities to deal with the fact that the Sun doesn't shine at night.

In summary, the economic case for Saudi Arabia to build nuclear reactors is non-existent unless natural gas prices shoot up or there is some climate agreement that introduces very high carbon costs. To the extent that countries desire to move away from fossil fuels, switching to solar power makes much more financial sense, and one that might seem naturally suited to local conditions.

Now, if only some other Prime Minister or President were to make a visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and explain why solar power might be a better bet than nuclear reactors, small or large.



In brief

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Little support for nuclear power worldwide.
There is little public appetite across the world for building new nuclear reactors, a poll for the BBC indicates. In countries with nuclear programmes, people are significantly more opposed than they were in 2005, with only the UK and US bucking the trend. Most believe that boosting efficiency and renewables can meet their needs. Just 22% agreed that "nuclear power is relatively safe and an important source of electricity, and we should build more nuclear power plants". In contrast, 71% thought their country "could almost entirely replace coal and nuclear energy within 20 years by becoming highly energy-efficient and focusing on generating energy from the Sun and wind".  Globally, 39% want to continue using existing reactors without building new ones, while 30% would like to shut everything down now.

The global research agency GlobeScan, commissioned by BBC News, polled 23,231 people in 23 countries from July to September this year, several months after Fukushima. GlobeScan had previously polled eight countries with nuclear programmes, in 2005. In most of them, opposition to building new reactors has risen markedly since. In Germany it is up from 73% in 2005 to 90% now - which is reflected in the government's recent decision to close its nuclear programme. More intriguingly, it also rose in pro-nuclear France (66% to 83%) and Russia (61% to 83%). Fukushima-stricken Japan, however, registered the much more modest rise of 76% to 84%. In the UK, support for building new reactors has risen from 33% to 37%. It is unchanged in the US, and also high in China and Pakistan, which all poll around the 40% mark. Support for continuing to use existing plants while not building new ones was strongest in France and Japan (58% and 57%), while Spaniards and Germans (55% and 52%) were the keenest to shut existing plants down immediately.

In countries without operating reactors, support for building them was strongest in Nigeria (41%), Ghana (33%) and Egypt (31%).
BBC News, 25 November 2011

Short list  for Poland's first n-power plant.
Poland's largest utility PGE on 25 November announced a short list of three sites for Poland's first nuclear plant. The utility intends to conduct more studies at Choczewo, Gaski and Zarnowiec over the next two years, with a final decision expected in 2013. Poland has signalled its intention to potentially build two nuclear plants with a combined capacity of up to 3GW. PGE plans to commission the first plant, at a projected cost of 18 billion euro ($23.7bn), in 2020-22.

Meanwhile PGE has withdrawn from nuclear developments in Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to focus on domestic opportunities. PGE has suspended its involvement in building the Visaginas nuclear plant, near Ignalina, in Lithuania. The move ends hopes that the project will be jointly developed by Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. PGE said it suspended its involvement after analysing the offer from Lithuanian firm VAE, which is lead investor in the project. VAE plans to build the €5bn ($6.6bn) plant by 2020 next to the site of the Ignalina nuclear station, which was shut in 2009.
Argus Media, 12 December 2011

TEPCO: Radioactive substances belong to landowners, not us.
During court proceedings concerning a radioactive golf course, Tokyo Electric Power Co. stunned lawyers by saying the utility was not responsible for decontamination because it no longer "owned" the radioactive substances. “Radioactive materials (such as cesium) that scattered and fell from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant belong to individual landowners there, not TEPCO,” the utility said.

That argument did not sit well with the companies that own and operate the Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club, just 45 kilometers west of the stricken TEPCO plant in Fukushima Prefecture. The Tokyo District Court also rejected that idea. But in a ruling described as inconsistent by lawyers, the court essentially freed TEPCO from responsibility for decontamination work, saying the cleanup efforts should be done by the central and local governments. TEPCO's argument over ownership of the radioactive substances drew a sharp response from lawyers representing the Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club and owner Sunfield. “It is common sense that worthless substances such as radioactive fallout would not belong to landowners,” one of the lawyers said. “We are flabbergasted at TEPCO’s argument.” The golf course has been out of operation since March 12, the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami set off the nuclear crisis. Although the legal battle has moved to a higher court, observers said that if the district court’s decision stands and becomes a precedent, local governments' coffers could be drained.

The two golf companies in August filed for a provisional disposition with the Tokyo District Court, demanding TEPCO decontaminate the golf course and pay about 87 million yen ($1.13 million) for the upkeep costs over six months.
Asahi Shimbun Weekly, 24 November 2011

The powers that be.
U.K.: at least 50 employees of companies including EDF Energy, npower and Centrica have been placed within government to work on energy issues in the past four years. The staff are provided free of charge and work within the departments for secondments of up to two years. None of the staff on secondment in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) work for renewable energy companies or non-governmental organizations, though a small number come from organizations such as the Carbon Trust, the Environment Agency and Cambridge University.

There have also been 195 meetings between ministers from the Decc and the energy industry (and 17 with green campaign groups) between the 2010 general election and March 2011, according to a Guardian analysis of declared meetings with Decc. Centrica met ministers seven times, EDF and npower fives times each, E.ON four times and Scottish and Southern just three times. "Companies such as the big six energy firms do not lend their staff to government for nothing - they expect a certain degree of influence, insider knowledge and preferential treatment in return," said Caroline Lucas. The Green party MP asked under the Freedom of Information Act, several key government departments to tell more about staff secondments - private companies and other organisations sending staff to advise and work with the government.

Secondments also work in reverse, with civil servants going to work in the energy industry, such as a two-year secondment to Shell and another to Horizon Nuclear Power, a joint venture of E.ON and RWE npower that aims to build nuclear power stations in the UK.
Guardian (UK), 5 December 2011

Anti-nuclear protestors take out rally against Koodankulam. 
India: about 10,000 anti-nuclear protestors today took out a procession from a temple at nearby Koodankulam to this town and staged a peaceful demonstration, condemning Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that the nuclear power project would be operationalised in a couple of weeks and resolved to picket the plant if work resumed. Pushparayan, Convenor of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), which is spearheading the stir, said the organisation would intensify its agitation from January 1 if their demand for removing the fuel rods loaded into the reactor were not removed by that date. Earlier in the day, PMANE condemned Singh’s ‘anti-people’ and ‘autocratic’ statement on KNPP (Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project), saying it betrayed the fact that the state government’s resolution to halt work was never honoured earnestly or implemented effectively.

One of the 'leaders' of the anti-Koodankulam fight, long-time anti-nuclear activist, Mr Udayakumar is awaiting the consequences of the sedition charges that have been filed against him for his anti-Koodankulam activities. Given the number of charges he is facing ("55 to 60 cases"), Mr Udayakumar said he did not know why he has not yet been arrested. Charges have reportedly been filed against Mr Udayakumar under sections 121 and 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which carry possible sentences of life in prison or even death. But he said he was not particularly concerned. "I haven't done anything wrong or bad or harmful to the country. I am fighting for something just. So no, I am not worried."
Statesman (India), 16 December 2011 /, 18 December 2011

Saudi Arabia not excluding nuclear weapons program.
Saudi Arabia may consider acquiring nuclear weapons to match regional rivals Israel and Iran, its former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal said on December 5. Israel is widely held to possess hundreds of nuclear weapons, which it neither confirms nor denies, while the West accuses Iran of seeking an atomic bomb, a charge the Islamic republic rejects. Riyadh, which has repeatedly voiced fears about the nuclear threat posed by Shiite-dominated Iran and denounced Israel's atomic capacity, has stepped up efforts to develop its own nuclear power for 'peaceful use.'

"Our efforts and those of the world have failed to convince Israel to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iran... therefore it is our duty towards our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons," Faisal told a security forum in Riyadh.

Abdul Ghani Malibari, coordinator at the Saudi civil nuclear agency, said in June that Riyadh plans to build 16 civilian nuclear reactors in the next two decades at a cost of 300 billion riyals ($80 billion). He said the Sunni kingdom would launch an international invitation to tender for the reactors to be used in power generation and desalination in the desert kingdom.
AFP, 5 December 2011