Saudi Arabia plans to develop its "huge" uranium resources with a view to supporting its nascent nuclear power program as well as selling onto the world market, energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said Jan. 12, as the world's leading exporter of crude oil looks to diversify its power mix and economy away from hydrocarbons.
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"We do have a huge amount of uranium resource, which we would like to exploit and we will be doing it in the most transparent way," Prince Abdulaziz told the Future Minerals Summit in Riyadh. The Future Minerals Summit is Saudi Arabia's first mining conference, with the kingdom having identified the sector as a major component of its Vision 2030 economic diversification roadmap.
"We will be bringing partners and we will be exploiting that resource... and we will be developing all the way to the yellow cake and we will be commercially monetizing that resource," he added.
Yellow cake refers to a uranium concentrate powder that is obtained from intermediate processing of the radioactive mineral's ores. It is a critical step to enriching uranium for nuclear fission in reactors both for civilian use and for weapons.
There are no official figures published on Saudi uranium reserves. In 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman claimed in an interview that the kingdom held more than 5% of world reserves. In 2020, a report by UK-based newspaper the Guardian based on leaked internal documents put the kingdom's "inferred deposits" at an estimated 90,000 mt, which would be equivalent to around 1.4% of current global reserves.
Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear power generation but has said it will add around 17 GW of nuclear capacity by 2040 and has ambitions to bring two reactors with a combined capacity of 3.2 GW online within the next decade.
The kingdom has been in discussions with China to develop nuclear technology and has previously held talks with the US under former President Donald Trump's administration to secure a so-called "123 agreement" that would allow it to obtain technology from the US. The agreement would limit the enrichment of uranium for arms purposes.
Energy transition vs energy security
Prince Abdulaziz also expressed concerns that the world's shift to renewables could pose a new set of energy security challenges as critical minerals could be concentrated in just a few countries.
"We should not forfeit energy security for the sake of a publicity stunt," he told the summit, adding that the energy transition needed to be well thought through.
"Let's not forfeit energy security, for moving away from the old classical concern of being over-reliant on the Middle East when it comes to oil to a different type of energy security challenge, which has to do with the availability of these minerals, and the concentration of the ownership of these minerals, and how the world may be exposed to any type of oligopoly when it comes to pricing these minerals," he added.
Saudi Arabia last year unveiled plans ahead of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. Its targets only apply to the country's domestic emissions and do not cover greenhouse gases released from the use of its oil outside its territory.
State-run Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil-exporting company, is targeting net-zero emissions by 2050.
Plans for hydrogen
The Saudi energy minister also hinted at pilot projects for hydrogen that will be unveiled next week.
The kingdom has expressed interest in becoming a leader in blue and green hydrogen as it looks at alternative energy sources.
Saudi Arabia will adopt a partnership approach towards developing hydrogen, Prince Abdulaziz told the summit.
"We are working with our friends from the EU but we hope that we can aggregate for example, our EU partners to work with us on delivering hydrogen, either it is ammonia [that is] shipped or even piping it," he said.
"We're working with our friends from the east on blue," he added.
Prince Abdulaziz has previously said Saudi Arabia could become "the next Germany" in renewables and has mooted the idea of shipping hydrogen to Europe via pipeline.
Saudi Aramco signed agreements last year to develop hydrogen manufactured from electrolysis powered by solar and wind. In 2020, the company shipped a cargo of blue ammonia to Japan, one of its biggest buyers of crude. Ammonia is the currently easiest way to store and transport hydrogen.