Bahrian diplomats arrive in Riyadh
The Saudis and their Gulf neighbors haven’t let Fukushima scare them off from big plans for nuclear power. Photo: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affiars via Flickr.

Despite the plans of major electricity users around the world to pull away from nuclear power after Fukushima, Saudi Arabia has announced that it’s planning to start building power reactors at a breakneck pace.

Why? “To reduce its reliance on polluting fossil fuels,” according to Al Arabiya (via my friend Steve Knox).

Peak oil is a state secret

As the people who pump many of those fossil fuels, why would the Saudis want to get off their own product? Is this yet another sign that Matt Simmons was right in his book Twilight in the Dessert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, that the world’s largest producer has peaked or will peak soon, effectively signing the death warrant of the two-century long Oil Age?

While Germany, Italy and other European nations have announced that they’re planning to follow Japan’s example and pull away from nuclear power, the Saudis are planning to spend $100 billion in the next 20 years to construct 16 nuclear power stations. That will take them from zero nuclear power today to 20% by 2030. At least, that’s the plan.

Many more-or-less foreseen events in the future, from an Egyptian-style revolution to a collapse of world financial and oil markets to future international pressure against nuclear power could stop the Kingdom’s nuclear dream from becoming reality.

But the real question now is not whether it will work, but why, even as the news out of Fukushima continues to get worse, isn’t Riyadh at least a little deterred from going radioactive?

Their own best customer?

As my friends in Silicon Valley used to put it, the Saudis may be eating their own dog food, but they’re apparently not drinking their own Kool-Aid.

That is, domestic demand for oil is rising in the Kingdom, as more Saudis join the middle class and want to drive cars off of 61-cent-a-gallon subsidized gas. At the same time, the Oil Sheiks know that the petroleum party is just about over. And to avoid the fate of Hosni Mubarak, the royal family knows they have to meet their subjects’ demand for energy, both liquid fuels and electricity, into a future beyond peak oil.

King Abdullah is no Al Gore, but the Saudis understand renewables, particularly solar. Saudi Arabia hopes to install enough solar to match the energy in their own oil exports, according to Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi.

But just like Texans, the Saudis also understand how magically delicious petroleum is from a net energy standpoint, that one barrel of crude can do more work than hundreds of strong laborers.

Which means the Saudis comprehend what many people in the West who want to get the world off of fossil fuels don’t — oil is so powerful and so handy that no amount of renewable energy will replace the cheap oil we’re now starting to lose to keep the global economy chugging along.

Operation Desert Doom

What the Oil Sheiks don’t seem to understand is their new toy, nuclear power. Otherwise, why would they be so confident that they could just safely deposit all the nuclear waste in a cave under the desert sands of their tiny Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, following the example of the Scandinavian nations?

If Fukushima wasn’t enough of a warning, perhaps the Saudis need to consider the existential conundrums raised by the construction of Onkalo, the Finnish tomb for “spent” fuel rods.

For example, how do you warn humans a hundred thousand years into the future that it’s a dangerous place? What’s the far-future translation for “Do Not Disturb”?

“My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a plane. His son will ride a camel,” is a Saudi saying beloved of peak oilers.

Maybe now they need to add “and HIS son will be born with two heads.”

— Erik Curren