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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

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