RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia said Monday it inked an agreement with China to enhance cooperation between the two countries in the development and use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.
The deal, signed Sunday, sets a legal framework that strengthens scientific, technological and economic cooperation between Riyadh and Beijing, according to a joint statement. It seeks to enable cooperation in areas like maintenance and development of nuclear power plants and research reactors, manufacturing and supply of nuclear fuel elements.
The pact with China is the fourth nuclear agreement signed by Saudi Arabia following similar deals with France, Argentina and South Korea. The signing came at the end of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's first trip to Saudi Arabia as part of a six-day tour to the Middle East.
The Gulf state has also been in discussions with the U.S., U.K., Russia and the Czech Republic over better cooperation in nuclear energy.
In the desert kingdom, a booming population and developing economy are constraining the government's ability to provide electricity and water, while keeping domestic demand for oil at bay. Some economists say that if Saudi Arabia's current energy-consumption growth rate of 7% a year continues unabated, the kingdom within 20 years will burn the equivalent of around two-thirds its total current crude production capacity of 12.5 million barrels a day.
Nuclear energy is increasingly becoming the favored alternative, one that experts say could save more valuable crude for export and help satiate local demand for power and water.
In 2010, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's biggest economy, took a step toward building nuclear power plants, establishing the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City devoted to research and application of nuclear technology.
Saudi Arabia plans to spend more than $100 billion on 16 nuclear reactors planned to be built by 2030 to meet its growing domestic energy needs, the kingdom's former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki Al Faisal, said last year.
The cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and China comes amid intensifying international pressure on Iran over its controversial atomic energy program, which the Islamic republic says is only for peaceful purposes, while the U.S. and other Western states suspect it's aimed at developing nuclear weapons capabilities.
China appears to be preparing to play a larger role in the global nuclear industry. In recent years it has been active in acquiring uranium assets abroad as well as obtaining advanced Western nuclear technology, which it hopes to begin exporting during the coming decades.
The Asian country has adopted advanced technology from Westinghouse Electric Co., a unit of Toshiba Corp., to develop a domestic version of the company's AP1000 nuclear reactor. The lure of the Chinese nuclear market, among the world's fastest-growing, allowed Beijing to force the U.S.-based company to trade technology and know-how for market access.
Westinghouse is helping China localize AP1000 technology, including so-called passive safety systems, which many say could have helped prevent the disaster at Fukushima in Japan. Westinghouse is working together with the Chinese to determine the feasibility of scaling up the AP1000. Early models of the reactor are expected to produce 1154 MWe, while analysts say future Chinese versions could perhaps be much larger.
Some experts have raised concerns over the pace at which China is localizing the untested AP1000 technology, and scaling up its power production capacity, potentially for export to countries with little nuclear experience. China appears to eventually want to challenge Western nuclear equipment manufacturers like Westinghouse, though it appears to be years, if not decades, away from doing so.
At home, China hopes nuclear power will help wean its reliance on choking pollution caused by burning coal. Beijing also sees its likely cheaper reactor prices and competitive financing from Chinese banks as ways to thrust its nuclear industry onto the global stage and shore up manufacturing jobs at home.