Why does Saudi Arabia need nuclear power?

Here's why Saudi Arabia needs nuclear power

Saudi Arabia – known for its massive oil resources – is making a serious push for a different kind of energy: Nuclear power.

Last week the country signed a deal with France's AREVA and EDF on a series of initiatives aimed at supporting Saudi Arabia's nuclear energy program.

Japan is also preparing a nuclear power pact with the Saudi Kingdom. The deal would allow Japanese businesses to export atomic-related infrastructure to the country, as reported by Japan Times. 

Saudi Arabia officially started looking into nuclear power in 2006. Along with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman – the oil-rich nation led an investigation into the possibility of a nuclear power and desalination program.

According to the World Nuclear Association, Saudi Arabia plans on building 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years, with the first scheduled to come on line in 2022.

So why does the world's second-biggest oil producer need nuclear power?

In 2009, the Kingdom issued a royal decree stating that 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."

With energy demand growing by about 8% annually, a population of about 26 million and no natural sources of fresh water, the oil-rich country – and the Middle East's biggest oil consumer – actually has a shortage in domestic electricity generation.

A recent study by the World Economic Forum ranked countries based on how secure they are in terms of energy. Saudi Arabia, despite its oil production of about 9.7 million barrels per day, ranked 91 out of 124 countries.

In an interview with NPR last year, author Tom Lippman explained that the rapidly-industrializing desert country's rising population is creating an "insatiable demand for energy because all the water comes from desalination, and the desalination plants are huge consumers of electricity."

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer of desalinated water, pumping out more than 3 million cubic meters of potable water each day.

According to a report by MIT Technology Review, the country uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per day on water desalination.

In addition to its water needs, the sun-scorched country also has to power air-conditioning units and all sorts of appliances for its consumer society.

"You can imagine what it takes to air-condition Saudi Arabia in the summertime," Lippman said, adding that domestic demand can take as much as 30% of production during the summertime.

Saudi Aramco's CEO Khalid al-Falih estimates that "rising domestic energy consumption could result in the loss of 3 million barrels per day of crude oil exports by the end of the decade," the US Energy Information Administration reports.

Essentially, Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its energy mix so that it can devote more oil to exports. In fact, the Kingdom is so keen on saving its oil for export purposes that its goal is to generate almost half of its energy from renewable fuels by 2020.

Abundant with oil but also sunshine 

Nuclear power is only part of the solution. Saudi Arabia also plans on building the world's largest solar powered desalination plant in the city of Al-Khafji.

According to Bloomberg, the country's goal is to create a solar industry that will generate a third of nation's electricity by 2032.

And its taking this goal seriously: In 2012 the Kingdom announced that it would invest $100 billion in solar power. According to OilPrice, the country was producing only 3 megawatts of solar power at the time. The plan would add 41,000 megawatts within two decades.

“We are not only looking for building solar plants. We want to run a sustainable solar energy sector that will become a driver for the domestic energy for years to come,” Maher al- Odan, a consultant at the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy said, as reported by OilPrice.