The Other Liquid Gold

Nuclear Power and Desalination in Saudi Arabia

A child washes his face outside his family's shanty near Riyadh, June 8, 2006. Sultan Al Fahed / Reuters

The Saudi regime has insisted that its primary motivation for building a nuclear program is to develop a sustainable power source for the country’s desalination plants. A 2009 royal decree outlining Saudi Arabia’s energy policy illustrated the logic: “The development of atomic energy is essential to meet the kingdom’s growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water, and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources.” On the surface, this makes sense. The Saudis need water; for water, they need energy. And they have enough capital—political and economic—to make it happen.

Saudi Arabia is a desert country with no permanent rivers or lakes and erratic rainfall. The vast majority of its territory—95 percent—is covered by one of three deserts: the Rub al-Khali, an-Nafud, or ad-Dahna. Most of Saudi Arabia’s natural reservoirs, such as the Saq-Ram and Wajid aquifer systems, are nearly tapped out. Although other promising reservoirs have been found—for example, the Wasia aquifer, which is thought to hold as much water as the entire Persian Gulf—they are nestled deep in the desert, away from urban areas. Tapping into their full potential would take many years and billions of dollars. Accordingly, the Kingdom has turned to an obvious solution: desalinated water from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. According to the latest estimates, the country consumes an estimated 3.3 million cubed meters of desalinated water per day, and desalination provides 70 percent of urban water supplies.

Taking salt out of water is an energy-intensive process. It uses about 15,000 kilowatt-hours of power for every million gallons of fresh water produced. As the world’s second-largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia can afford the energy outlay. It already burns approximately 1.5 million barrels of crude oil equivalent every day, with a significant portion of that output powering desalination plants. But oil-powered desalinization plants are not sustainable. Oil reserves will dry up eventually; Saudi Arabia’s thirst will continue.

A worker stands at a desalination plant, 35 km south of Riyadh, May 4, 2011.
A worker stands at a desalination plant, 35 km south of Riyadh, May 4, 2011. Fahad Shadeed / Reuters
And so Riyadh has pushed forward with other plans. Over

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