Saudis Plan Major Investment In Nuclear Technology

Saudi Arabia intend to build 16 nuclear power plants over the next twenty years. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks to Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute about the Saudi's nuclear ambitions and what they mean for nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While Iran's nuclear program is the stuff of international high-level talks, another country in the Middle East is developing its own nuclear power program without much fanfare - Saudi Arabia. Joining us to talk about the kingdom's nuclear program is Tom Lippman. His latest book is called "Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally." Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM LIPPMAN: Pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: What is the nature of Saudi Arabia's foray into nuclear power? How expansive is this?

LIPPMAN: On paper, it's a very ambitious plan that calls for the construction of as many as 16 nuclear power stations in the next 20 years. How much of that is actually going to happen is open still to uncertainty, but that's the plan.

MARTIN: So why is this happening? I mean, we think of Saudi Arabia, we think of all of those oil reserves. Are those reserves depleting, and at what pace?

LIPPMAN: It's not that the reserves are depleting; it's that they're using too much of their own oil. One of the strangest facts about Saudi Arabia is that its biggest domestic-management problem is an energy shortage. And the reason it's short of energy is that it is rapidly industrializing, and its natural gas supplies are limited and committed to its industrialization program, the petrochemical plants.

As the population rises, the demand for water creates an insatiable demand for energy because all the water comes from desalination, and the desalination plants are huge consumers of electricity. It's now a consumer society, where the population is about 80 percent urban. Everybody has air-conditioning and TV appliances, and all the gadgets you could want. It uses enormous amounts of electricity. You can imagine what it takes to air-condition Saudi Arabia in the summertime.

MARTIN: Yeah.

LIPPMAN: Long story short - they need vastly more electricity, and the only fuel they have available for generating it is their own oil. In the summertime, they're using - at some point - 25, even 30, percent of their production domestically. They want to stop doing that, for obvious reasons. Since they don't have enough natural gas, they're looking for other sources of energy, and they are theoretically committed to nuclear as a big part of the mix.

MARTIN: Anytime a country embarks on a nuclear program, especially in the Middle East, this would raise some red flags for the United States, wouldn't it? I mean, is this a program the U.S. supports?

LIPPMAN: Well, you might think so, and I guess there was a time when the words "nuclear" and "Saudi Arabia" in the same sentence would have sent people screaming from the room. But remember that on his last trip to Riyadh as president, George W. Bush signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudis in which we, the United States, pledged to help them develop their commercial nuclear program.

MARTIN: It's not just nuclear, though. Saudi Arabia is also planning a major investment in solar and wind. Is this likely to be enough to solve Saudi Arabia's energy problem, or is there still a justifiable fear that the country could lose its energy dominance, its influence writ large in that neighborhood?

LIPPMAN: Well, it's not a question of Saudi Arabia running out of oil. They have plenty of oil. What they're more worried about is running out of customers. Because the inevitable upward drift of prices, as the new oil that's found is more and more expensive oil, they're afraid they'll reach a point where people will really stop buying it and go on a crash program to switch to other sources of fuel, more likely in the United States and Europe than it is in China and India, but still it's a long-term concern.

MARTIN: How is Saudi Arabia's energy situation connected to its political influence in the region?

LIPPMAN: Well, I would say not as closely as it used to be because its principle customers now are in Asia. The biggest customer for Saudi oil since 2009 has been China. And I think the Saudis have no political influence in China nor do they really want any. It's strictly a mercantile relationship between willing seller and willing buyer. Saudi Arabia's position in the world is now no longer entirely a function of oil in the sense that it's a member of the group of 20 industrial nations, it's a member of the World Trade Organization. Its influence in the world now, I would say, is more a function of its position in Islam than it is of its position in oil.

MARTIN: Because of the economic realities and current energy landscape around the world, is the proliferation of nuclear power just something the United States in particular is going to have to get used to?

LIPPMAN: Well, I don't think we're necessarily opposed to it because as long as people behave themselves it's not necessarily reprehensible or even a cause of concern. Saudi Arabia is a member of all the relevant nuclear control regimes, so that if they were to play by all the rules, they wouldn't be any more of a problem than a nuclear program in Japan. What would happen if a less-friendly regime were to take over at some point down the road, that's another question.

MARTIN: Tom Lippman is an expert on Saudi Arabia. His most recent book is called "Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally." He joined us in our studios here in Washington. Mr. Lippman, thank you so much.

LIPPMAN: My pleasure.

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