Last year the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) announced the commissioning of the country’s first-ever nuclear power plant--the first ever for an Arab nation. The 1,400-megawatt nuclear plant became the single largest electricity generator in the UAE since reaching 100% power in early December, and is now providing "constant, reliable and sustainable electricity around the clock. And now, Saudi Arabia harbors the same ambitions as its OPEC peer. However, unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia might turn to China to design and build its first ever nuclear plant amid frustration over the United States’ strict stipulations for supporting Riyadh’s quest. The Saudis are indeed already headed in that direction: reports have emerged that China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), a state-owned firm, has proposed the construction of Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear plant near the border with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Since 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has laid out ground rules for countries seeking to harness nuclear power by allowing nations to enrich, split and recycle their own uranium fuel but barring them from production of the most deadly materials used in bombs.
However, the U.S. has even stricter requirements, signing on to what’s known as a 123 Agreement that gives Washington even more control over how radioactive isotopes are used. The agreement encourages the use of atomic energy without increasing the risk that facilities used for enrichment or reprocessing uranium for reactor fuels can be used to produce plutonium for weapons. In 2008, the U.S. gave its blessing to the United Arab Emirates’ debut nuclear plant in exchange for signing on to such a deal.
But China is unlikely to require Riyadh to adhere to such rigorous standards, hence the attraction. In 2019, Beijing declared it could build as many as 30 overseas nuclear reactors through its “Belt and Road” infrastructure drive in the current decade.
Last year, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman vowed that Saudi Arabia will remain a trusted and reliable energy partner for China. Prince Abdulaziz said that cooperation between the two countries had helped maintain global oil market stability. Prince Abdulaziz said Saudi Arabia and China would seek to boost their energy supply chains by establishing a regional center in the Gulf Arab state for Chinese factories. Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest oil exporter while China is the world’s largest oil importer.
"The kingdom will remain, in this area, a trusted and reliable partner for China," Prince Abdulaziz told SPA.
It’s rather ironic that the two nations have cozied up to each other at a time when Russia has replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest supplier of crude. China’s imports of Russian crude increased massively since the Ukraine war began thanks to the generous discounts Russia offered for its Urals.
It’s hardly surprising that traditional oil and gas powerhouses are increasingly turning to nuclear power.
For decades, many countries have maintained a love-hate relationship with nuclear energy, with the sector regarded as the black sheep of the alternative energy industry thanks to poor public perception, a series of high-profile disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Miles Island as well as massive cost-overruns by nuclear projects. Currently, 440 nuclear reactors operate globally, providing ~10% of the world’s electricity, down from 15 percent at nuclear power’s peak in 1996. In the United States, 93 nuclear reactors generate ~20 percent of the country’s electricity supply.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine and the need for energy security are now forcing a major realignment of energy systems on a global scale, with countries that were formerly strongly opposed to nuclear power such as Germany and Japan now seriously considering incorporating more nuclear energy in their energy mix. Further, the global energy transition is in full swing, and many experts are coming to the realization that the world needs more nuclear power to meet our climate goals.
Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world needs to double the annual rate of nuclear capacity additions in order to reach the 2050 net-zero target. Further, nuclear plants can be paired up with renewable energy projects to act as baseload power thanks to nuclear power possessing the highest capacity factor of any energy source: nuclear plants produce at maximum power more than 93 percent of the time compared to 57 percent for natural gas and 25 percent for solar energy and also require less space.
U.S. government policy regarding nuclear power is also undergoing a major overhaul. The Biden Administration, through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), unveiled the conditional selection of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, located near Avila Beach, California, to receive the first round of funding from the Civil Nuclear Credit (CNC) Program. As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the $6 billion CNC program will support the continued operation of safe and reliable nuclear energy facilities, help preserve thousands of good-paying clean energy jobs while reducing carbon emissions.
Last year, a Pew Research study found that 35% of U.S. adults say the federal government should encourage the production of nuclear power; 26% say the government should discourage it while another 37% say the federal government should neither encourage nor discourage it. Despite the ongoing public apathy, nuclear power still plays an important role in the U.S. energy mix, accounting for ~19% of power generation.
The CNC Program is a clear sign of the times that the Ukraine crisis is forcing many countries to rethink their energy strategies.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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