Riyadh plans to issue a multi-billion dollar tender next year to construct its first two nuclear power reactors, sources told Reuters, adding that the kingdom is discussing the project with the US and other potential suppliers.
The world’s top oil exporter wants to diversify its energy mix so it could free up more crude for export. However, the plans are facing the scrutiny of Washington due to fears of potential military uses for the technology.
Riyadh says its plans are peaceful as it aims to mine for uranium. However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year the kingdom would develop nuclear arms if Iran did. He told CBS then: ”Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
US, Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms are currently in talks with Riyadh to supply reactors.
“Saudi Arabia is continuing to make very deliberate steps forward although at a slower pace than originally expected,” said one of the sources familiar with the plans.
Saudi officials previously said they aimed to select a vendor in late 2018, which then slipped to 2019. The tender will now be issued in 2020, the sources said.
According to them, the project was proceeding slowly partly because Riyadh was still in discussions with all potential suppliers rather than narrowing them down to a shortlist.
One of the sources familiar with the talks said that the plans have also been delayed by strained ties with Washington, which has been criticizing Riyadh over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia needs to sign an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with Washington to secure the transfer of US nuclear equipment and expertise, under the US Atomic Energy Act.
Washington has also been seeking to convince Riyadh to sign the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol on extra safeguards for verifying that nuclear technology is used for peaceful applications, according to the source. It said that the kingdom has so far resisted, explaining that the fate of negotiations could determine whether Riyadh reaches a deal with US firms.