Peaceful nuclear ambitions spread to Saudi Arabia

Published online 28 April 2010

Mohammed Yahia

Saudi Arabia will build a new nuclear energy 'city' to serve as the country's focal point for all research, legislation and peaceful activities involving nuclear energy and other sources of renewable energy.

A royal decree issued by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on 17 April 2010 stated that promotion and investment in nuclear energy will be essential to meet the kingdom's growing energy needs and for water desalination, while decreasing dependence on fossil fuels.

The new King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy will be located in Riyadh, which is the capital of Saudi Arabia. It will conduct research into the use of atomic energy in many different fields, including agriculture, mining and medicine.

The decree states that the city will be the central hub for the country's nuclear energy research and scientific development, and will be responsible for drafting its nuclear and renewable energy policies in line with sustainable development.

All departments related to nuclear-energy research at the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST) will be relocated, starting next year, to the new city. The move aims to fortify nuclear research and technical expertise.

"Entering the field of nuclear energy creates new cadres of young people and opens up many new opportunities for employment," said Mohammed Salama, who is ex-chairman of Egypt's National Centre for Nuclear Safety. "It has many different applications ranging from pesticides and agriculture to physics and medical scanning."

The newly formed city will be an independent entity and will represent Saudi Arabia in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It will be responsible for all commercial use of nuclear energy as well as the proper disposal of radioactive waste.

"Bold investments in nuclear energy will help raise technical capabilities throughout the whole region, especially if there is regional collaboration involved," commented Abdelaty Salman, who is ex-chairman of the Nuclear Materials Authority in Egypt. "This could be a huge step forward for the region from a technical point of view."

Other countries in the region have recently announced a new, dedicated focus on using atomic energy to generate electricity. "All Arab countries have started working seriously on this frontier now," said Salman. "Jordan has signed agreements with South Korea and they have a good supply of uranium, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has put together a full nuclear programme in just 2 years."

According to the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission, Jordan signed an agreement last month with South Korea to construct the first research nuclear plant in the country. It will be built inside the Jordanian Science and Technology University to serve as a nucleus for a new generation of young scientists and nuclear engineers.

The UAE also signed an agreement with the United States, in March, to establish the Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute (GNEII), which should provide classroom education and hands-on experience in nuclear-energy safety and security protocols. The new institute is part of the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research in Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

The GNEII plans to play a regional role, providing the Arabian Gulf area and the wider Middle East, within 5 years, with locally trained nuclear-energy professionals to work in developing the civil nuclear-energy programmes.

"Focusing on nuclear energy is the best option for the region right now. A large amount of oil is used for water desalination here and that can be saved to be used in other petrochemical productions," said Salama.

Both Jordan and the UAE have announced plans to have functional nuclear power plants before 2020.