Kingdom offers lifeline to nuclear energy industry

Updated 24 April 2013
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Kingdom offers lifeline to nuclear energy industry

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s atomic energy ambitions are grand enough to grant several reactor vendors multi-billion dollar contracts to keep them busy building in the desert for decades.
The fortunes of nuclear power plant builders around the world sank when a tsunami smashed into Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011, sparking the worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster.
Opposition to nuclear power has risen since in many countries, along with construction costs, but nuclear technology is gaining popularity in the Middle East, where soaring electricity demand is eating into oil and gas exports.
The UAE picked a consortium of Korean companies in late 2009 to build the Gulf region’s first nuclear power station, dashing French nuclear industry hopes of building the plant near Abu Dhabi.
But French nuclear reactor builders should get something out of Saudi Arabia’s much larger nuclear program, with Riyadh’s plans to build up to 17,000 MW one of the world’s biggest nuclear building markets for the next two decades.
France’s original large fleet of nuclear plants was built around one technology, and there are economies of scale to be enjoyed from building just one type.
But Saudi Arabia is likely to opt to build a variety of different plants to meet its rapidly rising power demand, according to the Vice President of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), which is responsible for steering the Kingdom’s nuclear plans.
More than one design would avoid over-stretching one reactor builder and allow the Kingdom to sign politically potent, long-term contracts with several of its biggest trading partners.
“We see unique benefits of diversifying acquired technologies in terms of job creation, value chain localization, and knowledge transfer,” Waleed Abulfaraj said.
“The current front runners are all countries which Saudi Arabia has already signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with, which include France, Korea, China, and Argentina.”
Abulfaraj said the Kingdom is considering only Generation 3 and 3+ advanced reactors which have already licensed, built and operated safely. Third-generation plants have standardized designs to streamline licensing and cut construction times, added safety features and longer operating lives of around 60 years. The Kingdom expects the first to be built by 2022.
Third generation large reactor vendors include Mitsubishi, France’s Areva, Toshiba Corp’s Westinghouse, GE Hitachi, and Korea’s Kepco.
Saudi Arabia is also keen to use smaller modular reactors at industrial complexes, but will hold off on buying any until there are clearer, global regulations on their use, he said.
There are 435 civil nuclear power reactors operating around the world, with 67 under construction.
The Kingdom’s atomic ambitions are modest compared to China’s, which is building 29,910 MW and planning another 59,800 MW, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA).
India is building 5,300 MW and planning to build at least another 15,100 MW, while Russia is building 9,160 MW and planning another 24,180 MW,
But it is still one of the biggest potential export markets for reactor vendors worldwide over the next two decades, as China builds more of its own plants and Russia always has done so.
“Saudi Arabia has the potential to be an important market for the global nuclear industry,” Jonathan Cobb, an analyst at the WNA, an umbrella group nuclear energy companies worldwide.
“Working with a range of vendors does have the advantage of giving countries new to nuclear energy a broader experience of working with key players in the global industry. China has chosen to work with a range of vendors and this has served its ambitious nuclear energy program well.”
The Saudi target implies building at least 11 large reactors, or more if a mix of reactors is used, with the largest — France’s European Power Reactor (EPR) — capable of producing 1,630 MW.
But it seems Saudi Arabia is set on building more than one type.
“It would surprise me, though it wouldn’t be out of the question, if they went with one ... I doubt they would go with five or six ... But it wouldn’t surprise me that they would go with two,” Sandy Rupprecht, senior vice president business and project development, at Westinghouse said.
Few of the limiting factors on nuclear new build elsewhere — environmental opposition, volatile power market prices, high upfront costs and long construction times — are going to be stumbling blocks in a country trying to save millions of barrels of valuable oil from being burnt in its power plants each summer.
“Saudi Arabia has no problem with something which is the main condition nowadays for developing nuclear power, which is to have the financial capacity to do it,” Luis Echavarri, director of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, said.
“If you want to be efficient economically, I think that having a single technology helps a lot... However, if you have two or three different technologies you can negotiate better sometimes because you can benefit from competition even when you are already under construction,” he said, adding that the Saudi program was probably big enough to justify two reactor types.


‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Updated 32 sec ago
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‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Tom Fletcher might be best described as “the anti-diplomat.” Not in the sense that he sees no value in diplomacy, but in his steadfast refusal to live up to the stereotype expected of the ambassadorial profession.
While British ambassador in Beirut, he tweeted his way to acceptance by his hosts with an informal style and social accessibility that was in distinct contrast to the stuffy image of the traditional diplomatic circuit.
He told the BBC that there was not a single Ferrero Rocher in the embassy building — referring to the chocolates jokingly associated with the job after a 1990s TV commercial — and his “Dear Lebanon” farewell blog in 2015 after four years in the job boosted his broad international online appeal.
Now, Fletcher is running a portfolio of careers in the space where business, technology and public policy intersect. He is a visiting professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, specializing in international relations, and is also involved with the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, the “ambassadors’ finishing school” in the UAE capital.
The former envoy is also chairman of the international board of the UK’s Creative Industries Federation and a member of the United Nations’ Global Tech Panel, as well as continuing a career as a successful author. His book “The Naked Diplomat” explored the interactions between governments, technology and big business, and became an international bestseller.
His experience and Internet renown make him a star attraction on the international forums circuit. He was on a panel in Dubai recently to discuss the findings of the 10th Arab Youth Survey, and afterwards went into some detail on the findings of the poll, which showed — alarmingly for some — that the US was waning in popularity in the region under President Trump and that Russia was increasingly regarded as a friend for young people in the Middle East.
Fletcher told Arab News that there was some reason to be worried about those findings, but also cause for optimism. “We have seen a striking fall in reputation among young people in the region since the US elections. But it was also worth noting the wider admiration for the American people as a whole, which looks quite resilient.
“The Russia results were interesting, because Russia has not always been a stabilizing force in the region. On Trump, they are further confirmation that the election of the leader of the free world created a vacuum. But the lights will eventually come back on in the shining city on a hill,” he said.
The survey seemed also to reveal a generational split in the Arab world, with many youngsters demonstrably not sharing their elders’ view of the US president. “I think that the region has access to the same information as the rest of us, and can take from it a pretty clear assessment of Donald Trump’s reliability. There are clearly some areas of alignment with some countries, such as the rejection of the Iran deal. But the survey shows that people across the region also hear the Trump administration’s wider messaging on the Middle East,” Fletcher said.
The Iranian situation was clearly on his mind, but he said there were alternatives to an escalating confrontation between the US and the Gulf states on the one hand, and the regime in Tehran on the other. “Wherever you stand on the Iran deal, its violation is a concern for regional security. The issue we have to ask ourselves is ‘what is the alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear potential?’ Personally, I haven’t seen a better answer to that than the existing
Iran agreement.
“Of course, the Iran deal in itself isn’t sufficient in reacting to Iran’s wider regional role, not least in Syria. But I worry that it is the hard-liners in Tel Aviv and Tehran who seem keenest to end the agreement,” he said.
A lot of his time in Beirut was spent dealing with the regional fallout from the Syrian crisis, which started just as he began the ambassador’s job. Surely, seven years on and with no solution in sight,
that represents a failure of traditional diplomacy?
Fletcher’s response was, well, diplomatic. “Not all has failed. Huge effort has gone into keeping Lebanon relatively stable, despite the scale of the Syria crisis just across the border. Diplomacy has failed on Syria and on Palestine/Israel. But George Mitchell (the American politician credited with helping bring about an end to the Northern Ireland conflict in the 1990s) said that making peace was 700 days of failure and one of success. We have no choice but to keep trying, and to work harder than those who want to see diplomacy continue to stumble,” he said.
Fletcher’s work in the Gulf has enabled him to take a broad overview of developments in the region, and there is no more intriguing situation than in Saudi Arabia, which is going through a rapid transformation of the economy and society under the Vision 2030 strategy. “I think there has been a shift in international opinion on Vision 2030 over the last year. Initially many were curious, and conscious of the obstacles.
“But there is now a growing realization of how important a reform agenda is, especially if it succeeds in creating more opportunity for young people, including women. We all should hope it succeeds — I think it can, but will need maximum involvement of citizens themselves in shaping an open approach,” he said.
Fletcher also has a clear view of the kind of socioeconomic order that will emerge from the transformational policies of regional leaders.
“The Gulf has clearly realized that there is a need to move away from oil dependency well before the oil runs out. The answer has to lie in a knowledge economy. I’m heartened by the kinds of issues that my students at NYU AD want to work on and pioneer. And by the government focus on themes like wellbeing and education reform.
“Twenty-first century skills will need to be at the heart of the school curriculum, with learners encouraged to be curious, to seek out sources of knowledge and wonder, and to learn teamworking and innovation. This is happening increasingly in the larger cities, but there is still work to be done to mainstream knowledge, skills and character in education systems,” he said.
With the power of Big Data coming under scrutiny as never before in cases such as the controversy over Facebook’s role in the political process in the US and elsewhere, Fletcher’s work for the UN is more relevant than ever, and he believes there is a big role for the Gulf states to play in that debate.
“The Middle East needs to ensure it is better represented in the international architecture. It needs to be a key part of the debate about security and liberty online — the UAE Artificial Intelligence Minister (Omar Bin Sultan Al-Olama) is a great example of this. And it needs to help get everyone on to a free Internet,” he said.
Before entering the diplomatic service, Fletcher was an adviser on foreign policy to three British prime ministers, which gives him a unique perspective on the big current issue in the UK — the increasingly bitter process of leaving the EU, or Brexit.
The search for new trading partners has seen a succession of British ministers visiting the Gulf region in a bid to clinch new business. Fletcher does not share the view of some that the UK is destined for insularity and isolation in the post-Brexit world.
“The UK is going through a complex process, but it is always at its best when it has a worldview formed from having actually viewed the world. When it is open minded, outward looking. When it stands for more liberty — rights, trade, thought.
The creative industries are already showing the way. And the royal wedding was a brilliant reminder of what the UK can be — diverse, modern, self-aware, creative. We all badly needed that reminder,” he said.
Fletcher was the youngest person ever to get a major ambassadorial post, and seems well set to pursue a handsomely paid career in virtually any sector, from international policy-making, to domestic UK politics or the private sector.
But he still regards himself as a diplomat with a creative twist. “I still write diplomat on the landing cards in planes.” And there is a second book in the works, he revealed: “I’ve just finished a murder novel, featuring an ambassador detective,” he said.
It is doubtful there will be a Ferrero Rocher mentioned in the book.