RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, is pressing ahead with an ambitious plan to build a chain of nuclear power plants to boost its electricity-generating capacity to free crude oil production for export and Westinghouse Electric says it's got its eye on the kingdom's program.
Riyadh is expected to seek preliminary bids in early 2014 for the first of the 16 nuclear reactors it plans to construct by 2030 at an estimated cost of $100 billion.
The Saudis plan to add 18 gigawatts of electricity from the nuclear plants to add to a planned 54 gigawatts of renewable energy in the next 10 years.
"We see Saudi Arabia as a good market for us," Westinghouse chief executive Danny Roderick said.
However, the Saudis would first have to sign a Section 123 Agreement with the United States for peaceful nuclear cooperation, as the United Arab Emirates, which has the most advanced nuclear power program in the Arab world, did in December 2009.
Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act allows signatories to acquire nuclear materials, equipment and components from the United States on condition they agree not to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel.
Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh company that's part of Toshiba Corp., is already set to provide reactor components to the Emirates, ranked the third largest oil exporter in the world, for its program to build four nuclear plants.
The Emirates, a confederation of seven desert states, is expected to get the Arab world's first nuclear power program running by 2017, with all four plants up, built by a Korean-led consortium, and producing 40 gw of electricity by 2020, compared to around 16 gw now.
These two Persian Gulf powers are the regional leaders in tackling the growing crisis over inefficient and wasteful energy use in which domestic oil consumption, largely for fueling electricity generation amid rapidly growing demand and for desalination, is eating into exports that are their economic mainstays.
Saudi Arabia's state oil giant, Aramco, calculated last year if left unchecked, domestic oil consumption would drain 3 million barrels a day -- out of a current output of 10 million bpd -- from crude available for export by 2028.
"Unless action is taken, the kingdom could find that it needs the oil price to be $320 a barrel by 2030 just to balance the budget," regional analyst Matthew Martin observed recently.
The Saudis established the King Abdullah Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy, or KA-Care, in 2010 to oversee the nuclear power program and to develop renewable energy sources to ease the swelling energy crisis.
It plans to have the nuclear program operational by 2032, with the first plant running by 2019.
Westinghouse is eager to move into Turkey, which seeks to restore its former status as a regional power and is close to signing a deal on building its second 4.5 gw nuclear plant on the Black Sea, a $20 billion project.
That looks like it is going to a consortium headed by Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and which includes GDF Suez, the French multinational electric utility company, which would operate the plant.
Russia is already building Turkey's first nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast.
Elsewhere in the region, however, the intense interest once shown in nuclear power programs has largely evaporated, in part because of the political turmoil in the Arab world that erupted in January 2011.
Some nuclear wannabes have backed off since the Fukushima meltdown in Japan that occurred two months later on March 11, 2011. For some, like Egypt, it was political instability and the lack of financial resources, that ruled out such ambitious programs.
Still, resource-poor Jordan seems determined to press on with its modest nuclear power program, despite concerns it will deepen the energy crisis in the country, which has to import 96 percent of its energy needs.
The Hashemite kingdom's Regulatory Commission has given the green light for a $130 million nuclear research reactor, which the government hopes will be the initial step in building two 1 gw nuclear power plants to overcome an electricity shortfall of 6.8 gw by 2030.
In October, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission selected Russia's state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, to build the first nuclear power plant to start operating by 2020, with Moscow covering 49 percent of the $10 billion cost.