Nuclear Energy Potential Uses in Saudi Arabia

Salem Aldousary
February 20, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Nuclear energy is commonly defined as energy in the nucleus, where most of the mass of each atom is concentrated, of an atom released through a nuclear reaction. This energy was originally used as a weapon i.e. nuclear bomb but soon after that it was transferred to the public sector essentially to generate electricity. The two fundamental nuclear processes to release this energy are fission and fusion. Fission is the process of spilling large atoms such as Uranium and Plutonium into smaller ones, fusion on the other hand requires combining two small atoms such as Hydrogen and Helium to form a larger atom. Fusion reactions release more energy than fission reactions but have not yet been developed commercially, still undergoing intensive research efforts worldwide. Nuclear power biggest advantage is that it does not depend on fossil fuel. Hence, it is not affected by the fluctuating oil and gas prices. This type of energy is considered the most environmentally friendly source of energy for electricity production compared to traditional sources such as coal power plants. It releases minimal greenhouse gases, although nuclear waste is potentially harmful for both human and the surrounding environment. About 20% of the US electricity generation is harnessed through commercial nuclear power plants. Table 1 below provides a summary of the pros and cons of nuclear energy. [1-3]

Advantage Disadvantage
Low pollution Environmental impact due to uranium mining and refining process
Low operating cost Radioactive waste disposal
Reliability and efficiency Risk due to nuclear accidents
Cost competitive Hot target for militants as a weapon
Table 1: Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy.

This paper focuses on the potential uses of nuclear energy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as one of the world's leading countries in oil production. One may question the kingdom's intentions of acquiring nuclear energy as a strategic plan to develop nuclear weapon. Politically speaking, the kingdom has always been for a long time advocating for peace in the Middle East and around the world. The kingdom is not known to have a nuclear weapon program and has officially on severally occasions opposed nuclear weapons in the Middle East. In addition, Saudi Arabia has signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States and committed to nonproliferation projects. Needless to say, there is no hard evidence that the kingdom is introducing a military nuclear program, regardless of the rumors and lasting allegations to have an agreement with Pakistan to secure "off-the-shelf" weapons or at least the designs. [4]

Potential Uses

Saudi Arabia is the largest oil consumer in the Middle East of approximately 2.9 million barrels per day in 2013 which amounts to double the consumption in year 2000. This high increase in consumption is mainly attributed to strong industrial growth and subsidized prices. The subsidized energy prices by the government results in inefficient energy consumption where domestic consumers are more likely to utilize the energy in an inefficient manner. The energy demand faces a sharp upturn during the summer time due to the exhaustive high temperatures in the kingdom, during which air conditioner systems remain on at all times. The kingdom has recently reduced government subsidies for water, electrical power and even gasoline due to the recent drop in the crude oil prices. This decision should contribute to a more efficient utilization of the energy in the long run and provide a sensible economic relief to the government. [5,6] On the same front, the ex- president and Chief Executive Officer of Saudi Aramco and current minister of health, Khalid al- Falih stated that domestic oil consumption will approach more than 8 million bbl/d by 2030 if there were no improvements in energy efficiency. This means that the vast majority of the kingdom's oil production will be consumed domestically assuming oil production will remain the same, most of which for electricity generation. Energy demands in the country have skyrocketed which further overstresses the Saudis problem with energy security i.e. oil is a finite resource. Energy use in the kingdom is centered on two sectors: electricity for both consumers and industrial aspects, and water desalination. This triggers the necessity for additional efforts in search of alternative energy resources.[7]

The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) has developed a program that seeks availing ~ 50% of the electricity requirements through renewable sources by 2032, during which the electricity demand will grow to 120 gigawatts (GW). The date was later moved to 2040. This plan will free more oil and natural gas, originally allocated for domestic use, for export which is the main source of government revenue in the kingdom.

In June 2011, KA-CARE also announced plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years with an associated cost of over $80 billion. These would generate about 20% of Saudi Arabia's electricity. To put this plan into action, Saudi Arabia has recently signed a deal with South Korea to assess the potential of constructing two nuclear reactors in the country and also consented same scale bilateral agreements with France and China. A joint venture also was established between Saudi and Argentinian companies to develop small reactors for water desalination. [4,6]

All the agreements/plans demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is assertively moving in all directions to avail alternative energy resources including nuclear to reduce domestic reliance on hydrocarbon, and in essence gear up for the escalating energy demands.

© Salem Aldousary. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. D. Ferguson, Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] R. Murray and K. E. Holbert, Nuclear Energy, 7th Edition: An Introduction to the Concepts, Systems, and Application of Nuclear Processes (Butterworth-Heineman, 2014).

[3] P. H. Raven et al., Environment, 8th Edition (Wiley, 2011).

[4] G. Bahgat, Alternative Energy in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[5] J. Newton, "Petrol Prices to Go Up By FIFTY PER CENT in Saudi Arabia After the Nation Suffers Record $98 Billion Budget Deficit for 2015 - But It Still Only Costs 16p Per Litre!, Daily Mail, 28 Dec 15.

[6] H. Aljamaan, The Importance of Nuclear Energy to Saudi Arabia,' Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[7] Saudi Arabia, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 10 September 2014.