Nuclear energy to boost education for young Saudis and foster sustainable high-tech industry

Nuclear energy to boost education for young Saudis and foster sustainable high-tech industry

Nuclear energy to boost education for young Saudis and foster sustainable high-tech industry
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Saudi Arabia is embarking on an ambitious program to develop peaceful nuclear energy that will have profound positive impacts on the energy industry and wider economy.

According to the Ministry of Energy, Saudi Arabia is committed to a far-reaching nuclear energy program that will result in the construction of the Kingdom’s first nuclear power plants.

This program will add an important clean source that diversifies the energy mix and helps power the growth of Saudi Arabia over the coming decades.

But developing a nuclear energy program will do something much more important than increase the Kingdom’s clean energy capacity. Nuclear energy, like petroleum energy before it, will provide educational opportunities for Saudi youth and develop the country’s future technology leaders.

To understand how energy programs can be the foundation for educational development, we must run the clock back 75 years to 1949. The post-war economy had just begun booming, but the world was missing one key ingredient to scale global industrialization: inexpensive and abundant energy. That year, two American energy pioneers were half a world apart, developing drastically different approaches to securing potential energy sources: oil and nuclear energy.

In America, engineer and future US Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover joined the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Nuclear Development, tasked with developing a safe and reliable energy source: the nuclear reactor.

In Saudi Arabia, another American, geologist Thomas Barger, was in the Eastern Province following his Bedouin guides and trekking through what is today the Ghawar Field, preparing the oil-rich land for commercial use by what is today Saudi Aramco.

Both men succeeded in their missions.

By 1951, in America, Rickover was leading the construction on the world’s first nuclear power reactor. That same year, in Saudi Arabia, thanks to the vision of Barger and his Aramco colleagues, Ghawar’s oil wells were pumping 126,000 barrels daily — a drop in today’s bucket but massive numbers for that era.

What both of these men and these world-changing energy projects had in common was an understanding that they, and their respective organizations, could only build a sustainable energy program if they first built the proper educational foundation necessary to develop current and future industry technicians, engineers and leaders. So, both men, as they rose to lead their energy programs, focused first on education.

In America, Rickover founded the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology. This school ultimately became the basis for all of the nuclear energy education programs across the US government, schools and universities.

Rickover’s school at Oak Ridge and his nuclear project resulted in the building of the world’s first practical nuclear reactor, which provided propulsion and electricity for the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered ship. Rickover would then go on to develop the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, kickstarting today’s global nuclear energy industry.

At the same time in Saudi Arabia, as Barger rose in prominence at Aramco, he aggressively lobbied local and company leaders to improve educational and training opportunities for Saudi youth. Barger eventually helped to open a string of schools and training programs that laid the educational foundation for Saudi youth and enabled Aramco’s rapid expansion of oil production. These schools were the beginning of today’s thriving Aramco schools, training institutions, university scholarship programs, and much of the modern Saudi educational system.

Barger became CEO of Aramco, and the combination of oil and education grew Aramco into the world’s largest energy company, led by Saudi leaders who have helped make modern Saudi Arabia the world leader that it is.

While some mark Rickover’s achievements in nuclear energy and Barger’s in oil, their actual impact is far more wide-ranging, long-reaching, and eternal: the indisputable impact they had on successive generations of youth that, in turn, rose to the highest levels of citizenship, industry and government.

“Rickover trained” Americans and Aramco educated Saudis proved to be some of their respective country’s most important leaders over the past decades. These include Jimmy Carter, a former American president who started his career in Rickover’s nuclear energy program, and Ali Al-Naimi, Aramco’s first Saudi president and CEO, who was educated in the Aramco system.

Tens of thousands of American and Saudi citizens who were part of those innovative energy-inspired educational frameworks became major contributors to the two countries’ successes over the following decades and even today hold some of the highest leadership roles in the ministries and corporations of their countries.

Today, as the Kingdom embarks on another step toward cementing its global prominence, many commentators focus solely on the economic benefits of nuclear energy instead of identifying the most exciting opportunity that peaceful nuclear energy offers the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy future is an opportunity to build future strength through the most valuable investment of all: human capital, in the form of education to build a cadre of intelligent, well-rounded, and visionary Saudi citizens that power the nation’s future just as much as nuclear reactors will.

Saudi students already set themselves apart globally through robust Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, programs, and Saudi youth are making gains in STEM education and career fields. It is particularly noteworthy that according to the Ministry of Education, Saudi women make up the majority of STEM degree earners. The Atlantic Council has noted that Saudi female participation in technology careers exceeds European averages by more than 10 percent.

The new nuclear energy industry is an opportunity to capitalize on this current success in STEM and, in particular, to enable women, still relatively new to the workforce, to join a new industry at the ground floor.

By following current STEM successes with a deliberate series of educational initiatives inspired by the new nuclear industry, these recent gains can be solidified into the foundation of a STEM education system that elevates the entire citizenry to the next level on the global stage.

These initiatives can grow out of existing nuclear technology programs, like the engineering program at King Abdulaziz University, or be new programs at schools or institutions, such as vocational training within the future Saudi nuclear energy operating company modeled on successful programs at Aramco.

Particular impact can be made by including the nuclear program’s progress in STEM curriculum for elementary and secondary students who can follow the program’s achievements and be inspired to pursue a career in the nuclear industry.

Safe and efficient nuclear energy demands an early commitment to niche and intensive educational programs. Building a proper foundation for the operations, maintenance, and management of nuclear energy facilities ensures that stewardship responsibilities are taken on by a well-educated citizenry capable of sustaining and improving the technology for generations to come. The alternative is developing programs that work out in the short term but are not sustainable due to lacking multi-generational industry expertise resulting from effective education and training programs.

That is what Rickover’s nuclear program and Barger’s Aramco knew from the very beginning: long-term success stems from an excellent educational foundation.

Saudi leaders are uniquely positioned today as global emphasis shifts away from legacy energy sources and toward a more widely sustainable future. Saudi leaders can use new nationwide technology programs, like nuclear energy, as a way to build a strong educational foundation to ensure long-term success of the new industries and Saudi Arabia as a whole.

A side benefit is Saudi Arabia continuing its successful international cooperation efforts in technology and education that stem from the Saudi and American partnership that started Aramco. Just as the Americans were obligated to help develop Saudi human capital at Aramco, new international technology partners should be required to provide not just technology but training expertise dedicated to developing Saudi youth.

Aramco was never just about energy. It was, and remains today, a force for educating and developing young Saudis. Both Americans and Saudis can be proud of that legacy of successful international cooperation.

A future Saudi nuclear energy program can build upon the Aramco legacy of an international technology partnership that provides educational opportunities for young Saudis.

Saudi’s expansion into safe, peaceful nuclear energy will inspire a generation of Saudi youth and, if the educational foundation is firmly set, enable success for generations to come.

One can hope that a future Saudi nuclear leader will someday look back at the early leaders of the Saudi nuclear energy program and thank them, just as Aramco’s first Saudi CEO thanked Tom Barger for having “the greatest vision when you supported the training efforts of Saudis… during the early days.”

Christian Williams is an American defense and nuclear energy industry executive who lives in Riyadh. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view