Yesterday morning, a story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal titled Saudi Arabia’s industrial drive strains its role as oil exporter got me thinking again about how oil exporting nations are natural customers for new nuclear power plants – especially small, simple ones that can be completely built in a factory and shipped to their destination. Unfortunately, the day got really hectic and I did not have time to read beyond what was printed on the front page.
A few minutes ago I visited the online version of the story so that I could “digg” it and make it visible for those who do not have a subscription to the Journal. While there I took the opportunity to read the rest of the story. The problem that the Saudis are facing is a rapid growth in their own internal demand for oil. The growth is driven by an expanding population, a high per capita consumption rate, a less successful than predicted gas extraction industry, and a desire to turn oil into domestic jobs suitable for the 12-24% (statistics vary depending on the source) of young Saudis that are currently unemployed. Flipping hamburgers, waiting tables, or even repairing cars is considered to be beneath the dignity of most native Saudis.
There was some fantastic news – from my point of view – on that second page of the article. Here is the excerpt that got me really excited.
Saudis consume vast quantities of electricity because the government holds the price unusually low to keep the populace happy, as it does with gasoline. Nearly two-thirds of power goes to air conditioning. Saudis routinely keep their air conditioners on full blast even when on vacation. The average Saudi power bill, Mr. Barrak says, weighs in at one-fifth the cheapest tab in the U.S. “You try getting people to conserve at that cost,” he says. “It’s impossible.”
Even oil-rich countries normally scramble to avoid burning oil in their power plants, because oil is so easily sold and transported on the international market, while gas isn’t. But Mr. Barrak estimates that by 2012, petroleum will fire nearly 60% of Saudi’s mounting electricity needs.
This has made him a vocal proponent of nuclear power. That is a notion gaining momentum across the Middle East as countries wrestle with the wisdom of burning oil to generate power to make cement or cool offices. “Nuclear is definitely the future,” Mr. Barrak says. “Future generations are going to think we were stupid to burn oil for power when we could have done it by other means.”
I hope that members of the current Administration read that very carefully and realize that the very same logic applies to another Middle Eastern oil exporter with an even larger population. It MAKES SENSE for an oil exporter to invest in developing a nuclear power industry and it also MAKES SENSE for those countries to develop a full fuel supply capability.
Why would any nation voluntarily decide to move from energy independence to a state of complete dependence on an international fuel bank controlled by people who have demonstrated a desire to control the decisions of other sovereign nations?
In case the above is too vague, I am talking about the Bush Administration’s myopic view that Iran’s investment in uranium enrichment is prima facie evidence that it wants to build bombs. I realize that the current elected leader of that country has some bizarre and perhaps dangerous ideas, but I also like to use logic and reason to understand how people think and act. It seems to me that it is quite logical for Iran do be doing exactly what it says it is doing – developing an independent capability to make its own fuel no matter what outsiders might think. I happen to respect that kind of “kiss my a–” attitude towards assumed authority.
On a different note – I also cannot help but view the saga of Middle Eastern nuclear power through the lens of history and political affiliations. Back in my formative years, I remember reading stories about how the US was encouraging the Shah to develop nuclear power plants and I have met a number of Iranian born engineers over the years who came to the US to study during that time and stayed after the Revolution.
I also have read and reread Daniel Yergin’s seminal work The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. Throughout that massive book there are numerous passages about the Saudi/Iranian rivalry for oil markets and political power within the Middle East and within the US government. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabian leaders are long time friends of the Bush family. I often wonder if private conversations with their Ambassador have anything to do with the aggressive stance that America has taken with regard to Iran’s nuclear developments?