According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Saudi Arabia is considering a Chinese proposal to build a NPP. Citing Saudi sources acquainted with the situation, WSJ said China National Nuclear Corp (SNNS) had submitted a bid to construct a nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, close to the border with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Saudi Arabia has long been in discussions with the USA seeking for assistance in building a civilian nuclear programme. However, Washington has placed a number of restrictions on nuclear co-operation. These include an undertaking by Saudi Arabia to forego uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plans, on the other hand, have long included nuclear fuel production, which would require an enrichment capability.

The WSJ said Saudi officials acknowledged that discussing nuclear development with China was a means of pressuring the US administration to relax its non-proliferation criteria. The situation is further complicated by geopolitical factors, with the US reportedly suggesting that the restriction might be eased if Saudi Arabia agreed to sign a peace agreement with Israel. At the same time, Israel’s energy minister has expressed strong opposition to Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear programme. Israel has said it expects Washington to consult it on any US-Saudi agreement that could affect its national security.

Saudi officials told the WSJ that they would prefer a contract with South Korean state utility Korea Electric Power to construct its NPPs with US operational support, but without consenting to Washington’s proliferation restrictions. However, the paper cited Saudi sources as saying Energy Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was ready to proceed with China’s offer quickly if negotiations with the US came to nothing.

While China's foreign ministry did not confirm the WSJ report, a ministry spokesperson told a news briefing: "China will continue to conduct mutually beneficial cooperation with Saudi Arabia in various fields, including civil nuclear energy, while strictly abiding by international non-proliferation obligations."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been pressing ahead with its nuclear development regardless of US pressures. In January, Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman announced plans to use develop its uranium sources. “We have large quantities of uranium, and we will exploit them commercially in the best way,” he noted.

He added: “The Kingdom intends to utilise its national uranium resources, including in joint ventures with willing partners in accordance with international commitments and transparency standards. This would involve the entire nuclear fuel cycle which involves the production of yellowcake, low enriched uranium and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and, of course, for export.”

He also confirmed that the Saudi National Nuclear Programme for Atomic Energy includes construction of nuclear reactors, which will initially target two large commercial nuclear reactors before expanding further.

Saudi Arabia set up the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in 2010 to advance alternative energies including nuclear. Plans included the construction of 16 reactors to generate about 20% of Saudi Arabia’s electricity and smaller reactors for desalination. In 2013, three sites were short-listed. Construction was expected to begin in 2016 to build 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2032, but plans were scaled back in 2015 and the target date was moved to 2040. KA-CARE requested proposals for 2.9 GWe of nuclear capacity, from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

In 2018 a project was launched to build a research reactor, which was reported to be almost complete in 2019. The reactor was designed by an Argentinian state-owned company, Invap SE.

“This reactor should be operational by the end of the year roughly,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, who was then Argentina’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), confirmed. “It depends on a number of factors. Invap is in charge of design. They are directing all the operations. But the local engineering is being done by the Saudis.” Arab News said the reactor “is designed to use uranium oxide fuel with 2.1% enrichment”. The reactor is variously reported to be between 30 kWt and 100 kWt.

Saudi Arabia is also investigating SMRs, having signed agreements with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, Argentina’s Invap, and China Nuclear Engineering Corporation. The Kingdom is working on a framework programme for nuclear energy for 2022-2027.

In 2022, Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Nuclear Energy Holding Company (SNEHC) to develop nuclear power projects. The Saudi ambassador to Austria and permanent representative to IAEA, Prince Abdullah bin Khalid bin Sultan, said SNEHC would participate in nuclear economic projects locally and internationally. It aimed to develop nuclear power plants to produce electricity, desalinate seawater, and for thermal energy applications.

KACARE described the company as “an independent legal entity to follow up and achieve the commercial interests of the National Atomic Energy Project in the Kingdom by participating and investing in projects and assets of economic feasibility locally and globally, in addition to developing, owning and operating nuclear assets for the production of electric power and desalination of saline water through companies. affiliated or jointly established”.

Also in 2022, Saudi Arabia set up the Nuclear & Radiological Regulatory Commission (NRRC) to provide a unified and effective system for exchanging communications, information and data during radiological and nuclear emergency response operations among all national agencies.

Saudi Arabia joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1988, but signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA only in 2005, exempting itself from regular inspections, by signing a “small quantities protocol” (SQP), designed for countries with negligible quantities of nuclear material. The Kingdom has so far been unwilling to adopt the IAEA’s revised SQP or the Model Additional Protocol, which allows intrusive inspections on short notice.

It remains to be seen how things will develop in the future, given the significant changes now taking place geopolitically. When Saudi Arabia first embarked on its nuclear programme it was in the context of being a major oil producing country and close ally of the USA. It was also a fierce regional rival of Iran, which was developing its own nuclear programme despite strict US sanctions.

Since then much has changed. Economically, the Middle East Gulf states have realised that their oil and gas resources are finite and they have embarked on diversification, with the UAE building a large four-unit NPP with Korean support at Barakah. Elsewhere in the Arab world, Egypt has also begun construction of a four-unit NPP with Russian assistance.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with both Russia and China have grown in recent years, with China now being its main trading partner. The rivalry with Iran is no longer a factor, since the recent rapprochement between the two brokered by China. All this has weakened US influence on the Kingdom. And this development can only accelerate with the decision of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), earlier in August, to increase their membership by bringing in Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Argentina, Egypt and Ethiopia in January 2024.

Saudi Arabia will now be able to pursue its nuclear development without the restraints that previously impeded progress. It no longer needs to pay so much heed to US concerns, while Iran could well become a partner rather than a rival.

Image: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salmanin Riyadh and Chinese President Xi Jinping (courtesy of CNBC)