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Sunday 14 April 2019

How nuclear energy can solve Saudi Arabia’s water problems

Saudis use water like crazy, but it’s running short and desalination is hugely expensive. Enter a giant Russian ship…

By Chris Newell and Giles Whittell

Saudi Arabia has a problem – a problem arguably more urgent than the war it needs to end in Yemen or even the bottled-up frustrations of the half of its population that happens to be female.

It’s water. Saudis consume more water per head than any nation on earth apart from the US and Canada. Its population is growing at 2.2 per cent a year. Its government wants to diversify the economy away from oil, but this means whole new cities and more demand for water.

Almost no water falls as rain on Saudi Arabia’s 2.15 million square kilometers. The aquifers it shares with Jordan are running dry. Its desalination plants are the world’s largest, but every day they burn 300,000 barrels of oil and produce 31.5 million cubic metres of toxic brine.

The oil consumption speeds up climate change and makes Saudi Arabia a bad global citizen. The brine can be purified, but that requires even more energy.

There is a solution: nuclear-powered desalination. For decades it has been clear that virtually limitless energy from nuclear fusion could be harnessed to desalinate seawater on an industrial scale (by boiling it and condensing the steam); and to purify the brine, most of which is currently pumped back into the sea.

So far, four factors have delayed turning nuclear desalination ideas into action: cost, complacency, western reluctance to sell nuclear technology to the Middle East, and a fashionable preference for solar over nuclear power.

Saudi Arabia has plenty of sun, but it would need to cover vast areas of desert with solar panels to power the increase in water supply it needs. Its current desalination capacity “does not even begin to close the gap between supply and demand”, according to a recent report by Gulf State Analytics.

What to do?

A one-stop shop for Riyadh’s water needs may be opening in… Murmansk. Last year Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant designed to provide power and water for remote coastal locations put to sea in its busiest Arctic port. The giant vessel is now said to be undergoing trials near the Bering Strait.

Next stop Jeddah? That may be some years off but in the meantime we have deconstructed the technology aboard the good ship Akademik Lomonosov to show how it could green the Saudi desert at minimal environmental cost.

The benefits of green desalination are clear – as are the costs of inaction for the Saudi government. The lesson of history and of water shortages suffered by Saudi’s poorer neighbours is that scarcity means turmoil.

When the Jordanian town of Thagret al-Jub ran out because of an influx of Syrian refugees in 2013, order was restored only by the king’s personal promise of water trucks. And if they didn’t come? Then, the director of the local water utility said: “I’ll run away to Saudi Arabia.”

Further reading

  • The World Nuclear Association has a comprehensive run-down of existing and planned desalination projects, both nuclear and non-nuclear
  • Last year the New York Times gained unusual onboard access to Russia’s floating nuclear power station