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From NEOM to Nuclear: Saudi Arabia’s Clean Energy Initiatives and the Western Response

BY Grace Yetter

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11/28/2023

From NEOM to Nuclear: Saudi Arabia’s Clean Energy Initiatives and the Western Response

FROM atomic energy to smart cities, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on a one way track to build a sustainable and enduring future for itself, unparalleled in its level of ambition. In 2010, under Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi began to pursue a nuclear energy program, named the “King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE).” According to a 2010 royal decree, the program’s efforts to develop nuclear power were necessary to meet “growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water, and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources.”(1)

Since 2016, KSA has reiterated the same justifications as the rationale for Saudi Vision 2030 – the $1.1 trillion (USD) plan to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on oil and gas.(2) With investment into alternative energy a centerpiece of Vision 2030, the massive proposed smart city NEOM, which will run entirely on renewable energy, is the physical, aesthetic, and symbolic embodiment of the Saudi’s goals for a prosperous renewable energy sector. However, despite NEOM’s considerable environmental ambitions, the West has at times – and perhaps misguidedly – greeted the project with scepticism, casting doubts on its feasibility and in some ways echoing the same distrust it has directed at Saudi’s nuclear energy pursuits over the last 13 years. When weighing political cynicism and technological advancement, the parallels between the country’s NEOM and its nuclear plans should engender a broader reassessment of the Western response to Saudi’s relentless efforts to keep modernising.

From a floating industrial hub to a sleek linear residential city, known as The Line, NEOM boasts no end of futuristic and flashy attractions epitomising Saudi’s visions for itself as a business hotspot and leader in cutting-edge civil design. Beyond NEOM’s razzmatazz, the megacity’s goal to run on 100% renewable energy by 2030 make it among the most ambitious renewable energy projects in the world.(3)

To advance its goals, NEOM’s subsidiary utility company ENOWA has led several initiatives, including identifying sites for solar and wind plants and forming partnerships to install an expansive transmission system.(4) Arguably the city’s boldest energy project is the NEOM Green Hydrogen Plant, ten times larger than any similar facility in Europe. This plant offers a sustainable solution to water desalination, a crucial necessity in a water-scarce desert city like NEOM, but also an incredibly energy-intensive process that produces polluting brine as a byproduct. Rather than dumping used brine into the sea, this plant would transform it into an industrial raw material, running on a “circular economy” model, and would operate on a large enough scale to supply water to 30% of the city’s projected nine million inhabitants.(5)

Following the creation of KA-CARE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced in 2011 its intention to build 16 nuclear reactors with the aim of supplying 20% of the country’s electricity by 2030.(6) Yet, in 2015, Saudi postponed the originally envisioned 2030 timeline, which coincided with NEOM’s energy goals, to 2040, citing challenges in attaining the necessary technology.(7) Since 2012, Saudi Arabia and the United States (US) have engaged in negotiations for the transfer of peaceful nuclear technology. These negotiations have been slow, due in part to the Kingdom’s understandable reluctance to sign a so-called “123 Agreement”, which would limit its ability to enrich uranium and process fuel – a reluctance that the country attributes to its economic self-interest in enriching and exporting uranium.(8) As prospects for obtaining nuclear technology from the US and its allies have dwindled, Saudi Arabia has instead looked elsewhere for help, notably China.(9) Indeed, reflecting its frustration with Western suspicion of its nuclear aims, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia increased collaboration with China is evident in various agreements aimed at expanding both technological studies and political dialogue within the framework of a Saudi-Chinese nuclear partnership.(10)

Despite a lukewarm geopolitical response to Saudi Arabia’s plans for both NEOM and nuclear energy, the US, Europe and the wider international community have taken notice of the potential convergence between nuclear energy and advanced civil design to usher in a zero-carbon, ultra-modern age of sophisticated urban living. For example, the United Kingdom, US and Canada have already invested in plans to develop nuclear microreactors and small modular reactors (SMRs), whose benefits of high efficiency, greater safety, less space, and an even smaller footprint are promising for urban and rural communities alike.(11-12-13) The pioneering potential for these types of reactors to power sustainable water desalination has further been noted in countries like Russia, which opened its first floating SMR station with desalination properties in 2019.(14) However, despite the combined potentials of these emerging technologies, nuclear energy has not openly been on the drawing board to advance NEOM’s ambitious 2030 energy goals – no doubt due to the obstacles the country has faced in obtaining nuclear technology.

Having taken the lead in promoting sustainable solutions to climate change, the West cannot credibly dismiss the Kingdom’s initiatives to develop clean energy. Between its scepticism in regards to the NEOM project or mistrust over its domestic nuclear ambitions, the West should be careful not to miss the potential huge opportunities of a decarbonised Saudi economy and the wider benefits for the global common good to meet the Conference of the Parties (COP) climate goals.

As the climate crisis intensifies and Saudi Arabia looks increasingly beyond the Western sphere of influence for support, it may be worthwhile for the West to reassess how its cynicism toward Saudi’s clean energy initiatives may be undermining its own environmental and geopolitical interests. If nothing else, the zealous that Saudi Arabia plans for NEOM and persistent pursuit of nuclear energy show that it intends to lead the world into a prosperous and eco-minded future in which it may redefine itself as a trailblazer in sustainable technology.

Resources

  1. “Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia”; World Nuclear Association. Last modified October 2023. https://worldnuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/saudi arabia.aspx #:~:text=In%20August%202009%20the%20Saudi,desalinated%20water%20and%20reduce%20reliance
  2. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030. https://www.vision2030.gov.sa/v2030/overview/
  3. Bell, Jennifer. “Saudi Arabia’s NEOM: The $500 bln mega-project to be a “blueprint” for going green.”; Al Arabiya News. Last modified October 27, 2023. https://english.alarabiya.net/infocus/2023/10/27/Saudi-Arabia-s-NEOM-How-the-500-bn-mega-project-will-be-a-blueprint-for-going-green
  4. “What’s Happening.”; ENOWA NEOM. https://enowa.neom.com/.
  5. “ENOWA, ITOCHU and VEOLIA sign MoU to Build New Generation of Desalination Plant Powered by 100% Renewable Energy in NEOM.”; NEOM. Last modified June 16, 2022. https://www.neom.com/en-us/newsroom/build-generation-of-desalination-plant
  6. “Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia.”; World Nuclear Association. Last modified October 2023. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/country profiles/countries-o-s/saudi arabia.aspx#:~:text=In%20August%202009%20the%20Saudi,desalinated%20water%20and%20reduce%20reliance
  7. “Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia.”; World Nuclear Association. Last modified October 2023. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/saudi arabia.aspx#:~:text=In%20August%202009%20the%20Saudi,desalinated%20water%20and%20reduce%20reliance
  8. Aleem, Zeeshan. “Saudi Arabia’s controversial quest for nuclear power, explained.”; Vox. Last modified March 26, 2018. https://www.vox.com/world/2018/3/26/17144446/saud-arabia-nuclear-weapons-trump-iran-deal
  9. “Inside Saudi Arabia’s global push for nuclear power.”; Jordan News. Last modified April 2, 2023. https://www.jordannews.jo/Section-20/Middle-East/Inside-Saudi-Arabia-s-global-push-for-nuclear-power-27874
  10. “Inside Saudi Arabia’s global push for nuclear power.”; Jordan News. Last modified April 2, 2023.https://www.jordannews.jo/Section-20/Middle-East/Inside-Saudi-Arabia-s-global-push-for-nuclear-power-27874
  11. “US, Canadian regulators further SMR collaboration.”; World Nuclear News. Last modified October 7, 2022. https://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/US,-Canadian-regulators-further-SMR-collaboration
  12. Twidale, Susanna.“Britain opens competition to develop small nuclear plants by the 2030s.”; Reuters. Last modified July 18, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/britain-opens-small-nuclear-reactor-competition-launches-new-nuclear-body-2023-07-17/
  13. US Department of Energy.“Benefits of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).”; Office of Nuclear Energy. https://www.energy.gov/ne/benefits-small-modular-reactors-smrs.
  14. Baraniuk, Chris.“Could nuclear desalination plants beat water scarcity?” BBC. Last modified June 20, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-61483491