KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia/SEOUL (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is expected to launch a tender process for its first nuclear reactors as early as next month and will reach out to potential vendors from countries including South Korea, France and China, industry sources said.
The world’s top oil exporter wants to start construction next year on two plants with a total capacity of up to 2.8 gigawatts, three industry sources said, as it follows Gulf neighbor the United Arab Emirates in seeking atomic energy.
This will make it the second country in the Arab world to tap nuclear power as a way to diversify its energy supply for its 32 million population. The UAE’s first plant is expected to come online next year after delays.
While a possible multi-billion-dollar Saudi tender would be smaller than those being considered in India and South Africa, Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets and the lack of any anti-nuclear movement in the country could make it one of the strongest prospects for an industry struggling for contracts following the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
“Competition will be fierce,” an industry source said, adding Saudi Arabia was expected to send a Request for Information (RFI) to suppliers in October, marking the official start of the tender process following feasibility studies.
Saudi Arabia will likely provide more detail on the plans at the general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, in Vienna next week, the sources said.
The plants are part of long-standing plans to diversify the OPEC member’s energy supply and has received extra momentum as part of its Vision 2030, a sweeping economic reform program launched last year by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The government agency tasked with the nuclear plans, The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In the longer-term, Saudi Arabia is considering building 17.6 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2032, KACARE says on its website.
That is the equivalent of about 17 standard nuclear reactors making it overall the biggest contract in the world, after South Africa and India.
A South Korea-based industry source with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed Riyadh was expected to issue the RFI for the first two plants in October to five potential bidders - South Korea, China, France, Russia and Japan.
The target is to pour the first concrete of reactor casing in 2018, a Saudi source familiar with the plans said, although nuclear construction timelines frequently face delays.
France has spent several years trying to make its case for selling its reactors to the kingdom.
A top French minister and chief executives of French utility EDF and reactor builder Areva visited the kingdom in 2013 while a Saudi delegation led by KACARE chief Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani went to Paris in July to discuss Riyadh’s atomic plans.
KACARE also discussed feasibility studies to build the first two reactors in the kingdom with Chinese officials in Beijing last month, pan-Arab media reported. Russia’s state-owned nuclear company Rosatom has also been in talks with KACARE about Saudi Arabia’s atomic ambitions.
They will all face steep competition from U.S., Japanese and South Korean consortia. Westinghouse-Toshiba has deep ties with the Middle East, and a South Korean-led consortium dealt the French a humiliating blow with its surprise win of a $40 billion contract in Abu Dhabi in 2009.
The first of four Kepco-built reactors is due to come online next year.
Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq in Paris and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Writing by Sylvia Westall; editing by Susan Thomas