DUBAI: The International Atomic Energy Agency, the global overseer of the nuclear industry, says it is collaborating with Saudi Arabia to assist the Kingdom in developing its nuclear power production sector.
Given its key role in the regional energy landscape, there is a pressing need for production to transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon or zero-carbon emitting sources.
Wei Huang, director at the Department of Nuclear Energy of IAEA told Arab News in an interview on the sidelines of the 2023 Climate Change Conference that the Kingdom’s “very fast development” towards nuclear energy has been noticed by the agency.
“Now they are in the bidding process to try to get nuclear power into their energy mix. So, we hope we can see a substantial outcome of this process. We are seeing quite strong interest in this region in using nuclear power to improve the energy mix and the security energy mix, but also help to decarbonize the greenhouse gas emissions in the region,” he said.
Huang noted it is encouraging that the countries in this region, which are rich in fossil fuels, are now looking at nuclear energy as an alternative to minimize carbon emissions. He added that the IAEA supports member nations looking to develop nuclear power production.
“Our agents provide a lot of technical support to make sure the country can be prepared well before they are moving toward nuclear power, including help them to review their infrastructure.”
He added that there are 19 milestones that every country must achieve before taking the nuclear route and that IAEA assists them in reaching these landmarks, which cover a vast spectrum from nuclear, finance, funding, human resources, safety and safeguards.
Huang welcomed statements from US Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry, voicing his appreciation for Kerry’s emphasis on global collaboration in nuclear fusion. He highlighted the proactive engagement of the IAEA in nuclear fusion technology alongside its partners and member states.
“We see quite a significant development in this area. Of course, compared to fission, which has been widely used over decades, there is still a lot of work to be to be done to make sure that fusion can be really be deployed in the coming decades. And so our agency has, you know, discussed with our member states and also partner to see how much we can do. We are now working on how to transfer nuclear fusion from mainly the science focus to more engineering-focused activities, including the regulatory framework on the fusion. So this is what the agency is doing now and there will be a lot of work to be done in a couple of years to make sure all the aspects had been prepared well for,” Huang said.
While Saudi Arabia is at the initial stage of nuclear power development, its neighbor, the UAE, has already established three operational units at its Barakah Nuclear Power Station, while the fourth unit is in the pipeline.
“At Barakah, we have four units, of which three are operational. The fourth unit will come online soon. Together, the four units will produce about 5.6 gigawatts of electricity, which is equivalent to 25 percent of the total electricity production in the UAE. At Barakah, we have used APR1400 reactors, a Generation 3+ nuclear reactor built with Korean technology, constructed to the highest level of safety and quality. Moving forward, we would like to invest in other nuclear power plants and will examine all options,” Khaled Al-Shehhi, nuclear fuel quality surveillance manager at Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp., which owns Barakah, told Arab News.
The Barakah Nuclear Power Station is a $20 billion project bagged by the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., a state-owned enterprise and one of the world’s largest operators of nuclear power plants. The company says it is also looking to develop its exports in other markets.
“We are here at COP28 to introduce our Korea Small Modular Reactor known as i-SMR. They are really sustainable energy solutions that will help nations to reach net zero goals. Regarding the development and export of our i-SMR, KHNP is actively engaged in discussions with various countries, including Philippines and the UAE. The adoption of our i-SMR is expected to accelerate the journey toward a carbon neutrality, especially in countries facing infrastructure limitations for large nuclear power plants such as South East Asia region and some regions which have difficulties in tapping renewable energies,” Sonia Sunyoung Hong, SMR overseas business team manager at KHNP told Arab News.
She added that KHNP’s relationship with the UAE could be a perfect example for other nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
“Our relationship with the UAE is a good example of how we get countries with no nuclear experience. For instance, when we began working with the UAE in 2009, the UAE government had no experience of nuclear industry. They did not have any regulations, guidelines at all. KHNP helped and supported the government in developing concrete regulations and guidelines for the nuclear power plant implementation for the first time for the world,” Hong said.
As well as the IAEA engaging in discussions with Saudi Arabia to help the Kingdom realize its nuclear ambitions, the World Nuclear Association, the global industry trade body, has also been holding talks with Riyadh, said King Lee, head of policy and industry engagement at WNA.
“Saudi Arabia has been planning to deploy nuclear energy, and they have been planning that for some time. It is really aimed to address that quality need for clean power. Currently, most of the electricity generated from Saudi Arabia is from fossil fuels, from both burning of gas and oil. So nuclear power can help to generate clean power for Saudi Arabia. So Saudi Arabia is looking for both large reactors and the small, more advanced technology, small modular reactors. So, both the technologies are being considered for Saudi Arabia. We have been discussing with the Saudi government and institutions,” the official told Arab News.
When discussing fusion energy, he agreed with Huang of IAEA that it was still an evolving technology.
“Fusion is a technology that is currently under development, and we continue to support the research and development so that, hopefully, fusion reactors will become technically and commercially deployable. Research is going on in many countries, but we don’t have a timetable on as to when it may become available,” the WNA executive added.