Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on 6 November launched a project to build the first nuclear research reactor in the kingdom, the Saudi Press Agency reported. During a visit to King Abdulaziz City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KaCare) he initiated seven projects in renewable energy, nuclear energy, water desalination, genetic medicine, and aircraft industries.

Saudi Arabia's official press agency did not give further details of the research reactor project. However, according to the Riyadh Daily, construction of a 100KW reactor is already under way and the project is due to be completed by the end of 2019. "[The] specifications and design of the reactor were developed by Saudi nuclear experts and with the participation of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and international expert houses with the highest international safety standards," it reported. Arab News said the reactor “is designed to use uranium oxide fuel with 2.1% enrichment”.

For Saudi Arabia, like other nuclear newcomer countries, research reactors are the first step in development of a nuclear power industry. A recent MENA Power Industry Outlook 201, prepared by Ventures Onsite for Middle East Electricity, a regional event, says rapid population growth, urbanisation, rising income levels and industrialisation are increasing electricity demand throughout the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, the Saudi Gazette reported. The region is expected to require power infrastructure investment totalling $109 billion over the next five years.

In April 2013, KaCare aimed to have 17 gigawatts (GWe) of nuclear capacity by 2032 out of a total of 123 GWe. In January 2015, the nuclear target date was moved to 2040 and KaCare last year announced that it was requesting proposals for 2.9GWe of nuclear capacity from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. In February, Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom applied to participate in a tender for the construction of two NPP units. Riyadh was initially expected to announce results of the tender before 2019 but this has now been pushed back to 2020.

Research reactors have been included in the scope of cooperation agreements previously signed by Saudi Arabia with China, Russia and South Korea. A programme of cooperation signed in October 2017 between KaCare and Rosatom focused on small and medium reactors and on building a new research reactor.

In July, the International Atomic Energy Agency in July completed a mission to assess the development of the infrastructure required for a Saudi nuclear power programme, and KaCare has contracted French engineering group Assystem to conduct site characterisation and impact studies for the first NPP.