RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, April 22 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer, says it's setting up a center to develop nuclear technology as part of an $80 billion drive to boost power generation over the next eight years.
Saudi Minister for Water and Electricity Abdullah al-Hussein said last August that the kingdom was working on plans for its first nuclear power plant, although he gave no timetable.
This is part of an accelerating region-wide shift toward nuclear energy, which is led by the United Arab Emirates, another major oil producer in the Gulf. And it's a trend providing a bonanza for U.S., British, French, Russian, South Korean and Japanese companies that specialize in reactor construction.
In December, a consortium led by the Korean Electric Power Co. signed a $20.4 billion deal with the emirates for four nuclear power reactors.
On April 16, Kuwait signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with France, a leader in nuclear plant construction. Paris is expected to sign a similar accord with Saudi Arabia, which, although it holds around one-quarter of the world's known oil reserves, is facing growing demand for electricity and increasing oil and gas consumption.
The Ministry of Water and Electricity says the kingdom burns 1.25 million barrels of oil a day to meet domestic and industrial demand -- oil that could be exported. Aramco, the state oil company, estimates that the Riyadh spends about $8 billion a year in subsidizing fuel for domestic, industrial and agricultural purposes.
It's the same with Saudi Arabia's partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
In late 2006, the GCC announced it would launch a study for a collective nuclear energy program. It completed a preliminary feasibility study with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in November 2007 and is proceeding with a more in-depth study.
Progress has been patchy but the first stage of a GCC-wide power grid linking Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar was completed last July. Oman and the emirates should be hooked up by 2011.
"Many GCC states believe their existing sources of energy will be insufficient to meet rising demand," the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said.
It noted in a February assessment: "Although they are the world's major producers of fossil fuels, their electricity demand is projected to increase by 10 percent every year to 2015, with desalination requirements growing by 8 percent annually.
"For instance, the United Arab Emirates assessed that its natural gas reserves would only be able to satisfy 50 percent of its electricity demands by 2020 and that renewable energy sources could meet but a small proportion of the shortfall.
"In addition, many states reasoned that using nuclear power to fulfill domestic demand would allow for more exports of lucrative fossil fuels."
On March 24, Ankara concluded a protocol accord under which South Korea's KEPCO is expected to build the country's second reactor, a 5,600-megawatt facility, at the Black Sea city of Sinop in the north of the country.
Turkey wants nuclear power to provide 10 percent of its energy requirements by 2020. Ankara awarded the contract for its first nuclear plant, to be located at Mersin on the Mediterranean coast, to a Russian-Turkish consortium in 2009. Problems have arisen with that deal but it is expected to be finalized when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits Turkey next month.
On March 31, a South Korean consortium headed by the state-run Korean Atomic Energy Institute and the Daewoo Engineering and Construction Co. wrapped up a $130 million contract to build a 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor, a radioactive isotope manufacturing facility and a nuclear training center at the University of Jordan in Amman. It's slated to go online by 2015.
The official Petra news Agency reported that the resource-poor Hashemite kingdom will have its first nuclear reactor by 2017 to generate electricity and desalinate water. Construction is to start this year outside the northern city of Irbid.
Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, has announced plans for four nuclear power plants and looks like turning to the Russians to help.
In February, Libya has invited tenders from French companies for construction of a headquarters for the Libyan Atomic Energy Establishment, and facilities near the nuclear research center as well as the nation's first nuclear power station.