The internationally heralded “Gas Initiative” of 1998 was the Kingdom’s attempt to lure major western oil companies back into the country to help develop its natural gas reserves. After major oil companies spent $100 million in due diligence to evaluate the Saudi natural gas reserves, the initiative quietly dropped off the world’s radar screen. A Shell Oil executive, whose company is exploring for gas in the country’s Empty Quarter, told Bloomberg Daily Energy News that this was a high-risk venture with a low probability of finding sizeable reserves. In Matthew Simmons’ Twilight of the Desert, he repeated what he was told by an anonymous senior oil executive, “The reservoirs are crummy.”
The Saudis need water and electricity to match their population growth. Nuclear energy is likely to be the solution to both those problems. Continued dependence upon natural gas may prove a fatal economic and social error for the royal family. Our research forecasts the Saudis should announce a large-scale civilian nuclear energy program in the near future.
Let’s discuss the water problem first. In a 2002 story reported in the Oil & Gas Journal, Saudi Arabia’s 30 desalination plants produce about 21 percent of the world’s total desalinated water production. Nearly 70 percent of the local water drunk in cities comes from desalinated sea water. As the population grows, Saudi Arabia may spend another $40 billion to build more desalination plants.
Half of the world’s desalination plants are in the Middle East. Most are powered by fossil fuels, especially natural gas. Converting sea water to potable water is energy intensive. The commonly used desalination method of multi-stage flash (MSF) distillation with steam requires heat at 70 to 130 degrees centigrade and consumes up to 200 kilowatt hours of electricity for every cubic meter of water (about 264 gallons). MSF is the most popular technology, but some are turning to reverse osmosis (RO). RO consumes about 6 kilowatt hours of electricity for every cubic meter of water.
Desalination is very expensive. The cost to generate this electricity through natural gas explains why Saudi Arabia spends about $4 billion in operating and annual maintenance costs.
There are numerous precedents in combining water desalination with nuclear energy for electrical generation. The World Nuclear Association highlights the BN-350 fast reactor in Kazakhstan, which has produced 135 MWe of electricity and 80,000 cubic meters per day of potable water for nearly 30 years. In Japan, ten desalination facilities are linked to pressurized water reactors producing electricity. The International Atomic Energy Agency is working closely with about 20 countries to implement dual-use nuclear reactors, which would also desalinate water.