Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia

(Updated April 2019)

  • Saudi Arabia currently plans to construct two large nuclear power reactors.
  • The country had projected 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2040 to provide 15% of the power then, along with over 40 GWe of solar capacity.
  • Plans for small reactors for desalination are well advanced on two fronts.

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 650 TWh per year (2016), almost all from oil and gas and with significant annual demand growth. They have a total installed capacity of about 130 GWe, with a common grid apart from Saudi Arabia, though with negligible import and export. There is also a large demand for desalination, currently fuelled by oil and gas.

In February 2007 the six states agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to cooperate on a feasibility study for a regional nuclear power and desalination programme, with Saudi Arabia leading the investigation.

In January 2019 the IAEA delivered the final report of its Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) mission in Saudi Arabia, concluding that "significant progress" had been made, including the establishment of a legislative framework and development of nuclear infrastructure.

Saudi electricity

Saudi Arabia’s population has grown from 4 million in 1960 to over 31 million in 2016. It is the main electricity producer and consumer in the Gulf States, with 345 TWh gross production in 2016, of which 140 TWh (41%) was from oil and 205 TWh (59%) from gas. It consumes over one-quarter of its oil production, and while energy demand is projected to increase substantially, oil production is not. Its per capita consumption is about 9500 kWh/yr, heavily subsidised.

Generating capacity is over 60 GWe. Demand is growing by 8-10% per year and peak demand is expected to be 70 GWe by 2020 and 120 GWe by 2032, driven partly by desalination increase. However, in October 2015 the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) said: “The annual increase in domestic demand for energy ranges now between 6% and 8%. Forecasts indicate that the Kingdom will have to increase its generated power by 80 GWe by 2040." 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.

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

It had plans to install 24 GWe of renewable electricity capacity by 2020, and 50 GWe by 2032 or 2040, and was 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 (later: 2040) 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. In 2016 renewables targets were scaled back from 50% to 10% of electricity (by 2040?) as plans shifted more to gas, so that it would increase its share from 50% to 70%.

In July 2017 the cabinet approved the establishment of the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project (SNAEP), and new financial and administrative regulations for KA-CARE.

Saudi desalination

The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) operated 5.1million m3/d of desalinated water capacity in 2017 and is aiming for 7.3 million m3/d by 2020. Coupling desalination plants with power generation so as to use reject heat reduces energy requirements for desalination by about half. Hence dual-purpose or hybrid plants are favoured, as independent water and power production (IWPP) facilities. The country continues to install huge desalination capacity, much of it thermal multi-stage flash distillation (MSF) and multiple-effect distillation (MED), but a lot is reverse osmosis (RO), driven by electricity.

The Shuaibah/Shoaiba plant on the Red Sea coast is approaching 1.5 million m3/d capacity, Yanbu and nearby Rabigh 3 on the Red Sea supplying the Medina region have another 1.5 million m3/d. On the Gulf coast Ras Al Khair has over 1 million m3/d supplying Riyadh and Marafiq/Jubail is being expanded to over 2 million m3/d.

The first of three phases of the King Abdullah Initiative for Solar Water Desalination 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 RO desalination plant at Al Khafji, near the Kuwait border. Phase 2 will involve construction of a 60,000 m3/d RO desalination plant over three years to 2018, supplied by 15 MWe of polycrystalline PV. The RO plant will have six trains, allowing best use of variable power input. 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. One of the main objectives of this initiative under King Abdullah City for Science & Technology (KACST) is to desalinate seawater at a cost of less than Riyal 1.5/m3 (US$ 0.40/m³) compared with the current cost of thermal desalination, which KACST says is in the range Riyal 2.0-5.5/m³ (US$ 0.53-1.47/m³), and desalination by RO, which is Riyal 2.5-5.5/m3 (US$ 0.67-1.47/m3) for a desalination plant producing 30,000 m3/d.

Saudi Arabia's General Establishment for Water Desalination (GEWD) is, over the four years to 2019, implementing new projects with a total production capacity of up to 2.5 million m3/d in the Makkah region and the eastern province.

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 set up in 2013.

In June 2011 the coordinator of scientific collaboration at KA-CARE said that it planned 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 proposed its ABWR and ESBWR, while Toshiba/Westinghouse proposed the AP1000 and Toshiba's ABWR. Areva and EdF 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 would 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. This effectively meant that immediate plans were scaled back, and in 2017 KA-CARE announced that it was soliciting proposals for 2.9 GWe nuclear capacity, from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. In November 2018 KA-CARE awarded a contract to Worley Parsons to provide consultancy services for the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project. This covers project governance, resource management, project services, training and compliance across the full scope of large plants, small modular reactors (SMR) and the nuclear fuel cycle.

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. The pre-project engineering study was expected to take three years, and in late 2016 was “progressing for the FOAK plant construction”. In September 2015 further contracts were signed, which aim at building a partnership to establish knowledge infrastructure in SMART technology fields, such as designing and building the reactors and maintaining their mechanical and safety features. KEPCO Engineering & Construction is undertaking the pre-project planning and feasibility studies for KAERI’s $130 million contract. SMART Power Co Ltd (established in 2014) will be the prime EPC contractor, with construction start expected in 2018.

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.

In January 2016 KA-CARE signed an agreement with China Nuclear Engineering Corporation (CNEC) to build a high-temperature reactor (HTR) in the country, based on the HTR-PM now under construction in China by CNEC. A further cooperation agreement to this end, including localization of the supply chain and undertaking a feasibility study, was signed in March 2017. In May 2017 a joint working group commenced a formal feasibility study for the project, with a view to submitting it to the government later in 2017. In August 2017 China Nuclear Engineering & Construction Group (CNEC) and Saudi Technology Development Corporation signed an agreement for a feasibility study on using high temperature reactors for seawater desalination. The IAEA also reports a feasibility study on HTRs providing heat for the petro-chemical industry in Saudi Arabia.


In March and August 2017 China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and the Saudi Geological Survey signed agreements on cooperation on the exploration of uranium. CNNC said it would explore nine potential areas for uranium resources in Saudi Arabia over the next two years. It has also been exploring in Jordan.

In March 2019 KA-CARE launched a programme in conjunction with the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and the Jordan Uranium Mining Company (JUMCO) to develop Saudi expertise in uranium exploration and mining. This follows a March 2017 agreement between JAEC and KA-CARE covering uranium exploration and mining in central Jordan.

Fuel cycle

There have been media reports speculating on KA-CARE intentions for uranium enrichment, without confirmation or plausibility. The speculation is based on a possible nuclear agreement with the USA, and relates to regional politics.


A 30 kWt low power research reactor (LPRR) is under construction at King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology (KACST) in Riyadh by Argentina's INVAP. The project was officially launched in November 2018, when construction was reported to be well under way. 

Regulation & safety

The 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. In November 2016 KA-CARE signed an agreement with South Korea’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) to promote cooperation in “regulating nuclear safety, safeguards and physical protection, radiation protection and relevant research, as well as development in a manner to serve atomic energy programs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," according to KA-CARE. NSSC said that “the platform of cooperation” was “expected to play an imperative role in facilitating bilateral cooperations in the region."

International agreements

A nuclear cooperation agreement with France in early 2011 seemed likely to advance French interests in the country’s plans. In June 2015 France signed an agreement to undertake a feasibility study for building two EPR nuclear power reactors. Additional agreements were signed on nuclear safety training as well as on waste disposal.

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 called 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. In September 2015 further contracts were signed, which aim at building a partnership to establish knowledge infrastructure in SMART technology fields (see March 2015 SMART agreement above).

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, and in August 2016 KA-CARE signed an agreement with CNNC for human resource development.

A June 2015 agreement with Rosatom provided for cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, including: the design, construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear power and research reactors, including desalination plants and particle accelerators; the provision of nuclear fuel cycle services, including nuclear power plants and research reactors; the management of used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management; the production of radioisotopes and their application in industry, medicine and agriculture; and the education and training of specialists in the field of nuclear energy. A further programme of cooperation was signed in October 2017 between KA-CARE and Rosatom, focused on small and medium reactors, and on building a new research reactor.

In October 2015 KA-CARE signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Hungary. In October 2016 it signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Kazakhstan, focused on fuel supply.

In March 2017 an agreement between KA-CARE and Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) was signed for a feasibility study on the construction of two small modular reactors (SMRs) in Jordan for the production of electricity and desalinated water. No particular technology was mentioned.

KA-CARE earlier said it was negotiating with the Czech Republic, UK and the USA regarding "further cooperation". A full nuclear cooperation agreement with the USA is generally seen as vital to proceeding with Saudi nuclear power plans.

Saudi Arabia has had a safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA since 2009, but no Additional Protocol. Argentina's envoy to the IAEA has said that further safeguards arrangements will be needed before the research reactor it is building at KACST can be fuelled.

Notes & references

Muhammad Garwan, K.A.CARE, Nov 2013, Sustainable Energy Mix for Saudi Arabia
KAERI 3/9/15, KAERI and K.A.CARE signed SMART PPE Agreement


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