Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia

(Updated 16 March 2015)

  • Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, with the first reactor on line in 2022.
  • It projects 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2040 to provide 15% of the power then, along with over 40 GWe of solar capacity.

In December 2006 the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Oman – announced that the Council was commissioning a study on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. France agreed to work with them on this, and Iran pledged assistance with nuclear technology.

Together they produce 520 billion kWh per year (2012), all from oil and gas and with 5-7% annual demand growth. They have total installed capacity of over 90 GWe, with a common grid apart from Saudi Arabia. There is also a large demand for desalination, currently fuelled by oil and gas.

In February 2007 the six states agreed with the IAEA to cooperate on a feasibility study for a regional nuclear power and desalination program. Saudi Arabia was leading the investigation and thought that a program might emerge about 2009.

Saudi electricity

Saudi Arabia’s population has grown from 4 million in 1960 to almost 30 million in 2014. It is is the main electricity producer and consumer in the Gulf States, with 272 billion kWh gross production in 2012 – 150 TWh from oil and 121 TWh from gas. Energy use for electricity and heat production including desalination in 2011 was 28,783 PJ, 57% of it from oil. It consumes over one-quarter of its oil production, and while energy demand is projected to increase substantially, oil production is not. Generating capacity is over 30 GWe. Demand is growing 8% per year and peak demand is expected to be 70 GWe by 2020 and 120 GWe by 2032. Saudi Arabia is unique in the region in having 60 Hz grid frequency, which severely limits the potential for grid interconnections – it has no electricity import or export. Its population is about 29 million, and per capita consumption about 8000 kWh/yr.

The Ministry of Water & Electricity (MOWE) is broadly responsible for power and desalination in the country.

It has plans to install 24 GWe of renewable capacity by 2020, and 50 GWe by 2032, and is looking at the prospects of exporting up to 10 GWe of this to Italy or Spain during winter when much generating capacity is under-utilised (cooling accounts for over half the capacity in summer). The 50 GWe in 2032 was to comprise 25 GWe CSP, 16 GWe solar PV, 4 GWe geothermal and waste (together supplying 150-190 TWh, 23-30% of power), complementing 18 GWe nuclear (supplying 131 TWh/yr, 20% of power), and supplemented by 60.5 GWe hydrocarbon capacity which would be little used (c10 GWe) for half the year. The nuclear target date has now been put back to 2040.

The first of three phases of the King Abdullah Solar water initiative were expected to be operating by the end of 2013. Phase 1 involves construction of two solar plants which will generate 10 MW of power for a 30,000 m³/d reverse-osmosis (RO) desalination plant at Al Khafji, near the Kuwait border. Phase 2 will involve construction of a 300,000 m³/d desalination plant over three years. The third phase aims to implement the solar water initiative throughout Saudi Arabia, with the eventual target of seeing all the country's desalination plants powered by solar energy by 2020.

Meanwhile the country continues to install huge desalination capacity, much of it thermal MSF and MED, but a lot is reverse osmosis (RO), driven by electricity.

Saudi Nuclear power plans: large units

In August 2009 the Saudi government announced that it was considering a nuclear power program on its own, and in April 2010 a royal decree said: "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." The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) was set up in Riyadh to advance this agenda as an alternative to oil and to be the competent agency for treaties on nuclear energy signed by the kingdom. It is also responsible for supervising works related to nuclear energy and radioactive waste projects.

In June 2010 it appointed the Finland- and Swiss-based Poyry consultancy firm to help define "high-level strategy in the area of nuclear and renewable energy applications" with desalination. In November 2011 it appointed WorleyParsons to conduct site surveys and regional analysis to identify potential sites, to select candidate sites then compare and rank them, and to develop technical specifications for a planned tender for the next stage of the Saudi nuclear power project. Three sites were short-listed as of September 2013: Jubail on the Gulf; and Tabuk and Jizan on the Red Sea. The Nuclear Holding Company was being set up in 2013.

In June 2011 the coordinator of scientific collaboration at KA-CARE said that it plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than 300 billion riyals ($80 billion). These would generate about 20% of Saudi Arabia's electricity. Smaller reactors such as Argentina’s CAREM are envisaged for desalination. An April 2013 timeline showed nuclear construction starting in 2016.

In April 2013 KA-CARE projected 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2032 of total 123 GWe, with 16 GWe solar PV, 25 GWe solar CSP (to provide for heat storage), and 4 GWe from geothermal, wind and waste. About half the capacity in 2032 would still be hydrocarbon, with one-third solar following investment in that of some $108 billion. In addition 9 GWe of wind capacity would be used for desalination. In January 2015 the nuclear target date was moved to 2040.

In September 2013 both GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Toshiba/ Westinghouse signed contracts with Exelon Nuclear Partners (ENP), a division of Exelon Generation, to pursue reactor construction deals with KA-CARE. GEH is proposing its ABWR and ESBWR, while Toshiba/ Westinghouse is proposing the AP1000 and its ABWR version. Areva and EdF have signed a number of agreements with Saudi companies and universities, and EdF signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia's Global Energy Holding Company (GEHC) for the creation of a joint venture whose first task will be to carry out feasibility studies for an EPR reactor in the country.

In January 2015 the government said that its target for 17 GWe of nuclear capacity would be more like 2040.

Nuclear plans: small units

In March 2015 the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) signed an agreement with KA-CARE to assess the potential for building at least two South Korean SMART reactors in the country, and possibly more. SMART is designed for electricity generation (up to 100 MWe) as well as thermal applications, such as seawater desalination, with a 60-year design life and three-year refuelling cycle. The cost of building the first SMART unit in Saudi Arabia is estimated at $1 billion. The agreement is seen by South Korea as opening opportunities for major involvement in Saudi nuclear power plans, and it also calls for the commercialization and promotion of the SMART reactor to third countries. KAERI has designed an integrated desalination plant based on the SMART reactor to produce 40,000 m3/day of water and 90 MWe of power at less than the cost of gas turbine.

Also in March 2015, the state-owned INVAP (Investigacion Aplicada) from Argentina and state-owned Saudi technology innovation company Taqnia set up a joint venture company, Invania, to develop nuclear technology for Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program, apparently focusing on small reactors such as CAREM (100 MWt, 27 MWe) for desalination. Taqnia is the technology arm of the Public Investment Fund.

Regulation & safety

A national Saudi Arabian Atomic Regulatory Authority (SAARA) was set up to commence activities early in 2014. In May 2014 KA-CARE signed an agreement with the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) to assist in this by recruiting and training personnel and establishing safety standards.

International agreements

A nuclear cooperation agreement with France in early 2011 seemed likely to energetically advance French interests in the country’s plans. A mid-2011 nuclear cooperation agreement with Argentina was evidently related to smaller plants for desalination and the subsequent Invania joint venture. 

A November 2011 agreement with South Korea calls for cooperation in nuclear R&D, including building nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as training, safety and waste management. In June 2013 Kepco offered support for the localization of nuclear technology, along with joint research and development of nuclear technologies if Saudi Arabia purchases South Korean reactors. 

A January 2012 agreement with China relates to nuclear plant development and maintenance, research reactors, and the provision of fabricated nuclear fuel. A further agreement with CNNC was signed in August 2014. 

KA-CARE said it was negotiating with Russia, Czech Republic, UK and the USA regarding "further cooperation".

Saudi Arabia has had a safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA since 2009, but no Additional Protocol.


Muhammad Garwan, K.A.CARE, Nov 2013, Sustainable Energy Mix for Saudi Arabia