Who’s Afraid of Saudi Nukes?

Riyadh’s reckless behavior foments widespread mistrust of its plans to buy nuclear reactors.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman laughs with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman laughs with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

The release this week of an explosive report by House Democrats alleging that the Trump administration has sought to help its cronies sell nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia has dramatically heightened tensions between the White House and lawmakers in both chambers.

But sleaze aside, is there cause for alarm over Saudi Arabia gaining access to the same kind of power-generating technology that more than 30 countries around the world already use?

Both Republican and Democratic legislators and nuclear experts who are increasingly alarmed at Saudi Arabia’s reckless behavior say there is plenty of reason to be concerned.

According to the House report, whistleblowers “have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisors at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump Administration officials to halt their efforts” to sell nuclear know-how to Riyadh. The whistleblowers, who were not identified, also warned “of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes,” the report said.

And in the wake of the gruesome, regime-ordered killing in October 2018 of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, anti-Saudi sentiment in Washington that had already been rising due to atrocities in Yemen is boiling over. Lawmakers such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have introduced legislation that would, unusually, give Congress the final say on whether to allow nuclear technology exports to Saudi Arabia, adding extra restrictions to the standard accord with the express intent of thwarting Riyadh’s quest for a nuclear bomb.

“If a government is willing to murder a U.S. green-card holder,” Rubio told the Daily Beast, “there’s a legitimate question over whether such a government could be trusted with nuclear energy and the potential weaponization of it.”

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia certainly needs more power. With electricity demand growing by as much as 8 percent a year—needed to run air conditioners, desalination plants, and more—the country is looking to find something other than oil and gas, which currently provide nearly all its electricity, to keep the lights on.

Officials in Saudi Arabia, which can burn as much as one-tenth of its oil production every summer just making electricity, want to preserve that black gold for more lucrative exports. One answer is adding more renewable energy, especially solar power. Another answer is nuclear power, and the country plans to build as many as 16 big nuclear power plants over the next 25 years; Riyadh already has a tender out for the first two plants, attracting the interest of Russia, China, France, South Korea—and, especially, the United States.

America’s nuclear industry, seeing almost zero chance of big new projects at home, is champing at the bit to get into what could be a $100 billion market. One industry executive has called the Saudi foray into nuclear power the “deal of the decade,” and U.S. officials (and Saudi lobbyists) have been pressing the Trump administration to make it easier for U.S. nuclear firms to do business in Saudi Arabia. Top nuclear executives met with President Donald Trump at the White House this month to discuss Saudi Arabia, among other topics.

Trump administration officials argue that America’s nuclear industry should sell reactors to Saudi Arabia—or else Russia or China will, potentially giving Moscow or Beijing a decades-long lucrative, strategic partnership with a keystone state in the Middle East. (On Friday, Saudi Arabia took another big step toward deepening its already tight energy relationship with China, inking a $10 billion deal to build a new refinery.)

In general, selling U.S. nuclear technology has another benefit, too, many experts say: The United States also exports its regulatory regime, safety and security standards, and strict protocols against nuclear proliferation, making American participation in the worldwide scramble for nuclear power a way to boost, rather than undermine, global security.

But in order to sell reactors overseas, the United States needs a formal agreement with the other country regulating just how those nuclear technologies will be used; to date, the United States has nearly 50 such agreements, known as “123 agreements” for the eponymous section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. For several years, Washington and Saudi Arabia have been negotiating their own 123 accord. But lately, those efforts have run into a buzz saw—or rather, a Saudi bone saw.

Many experts argue that fears that Saudi Arabia will turn nuclear reactors into breeders for a weapons program are overblown. Reactors use low-enriched uranium, while bombs need highly enriched uranium. And that kind of enrichment program is hard to keep hidden, not to mention costly. Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to scrape out plutonium to build a bomb is even costlier.

“There seems to be a conflating of legitimate national security issues with civilian nuclear technology. Saudi Arabia is not Iran. It’s not North Korea,” said Katie Tubb, a nuclear energy specialist at the Heritage Foundation. She says a standard 123 agreement, like the ones the United States has with dozens of other countries, would provide plenty of safeguards and oversight to ensure that Saudi Arabia used the technology responsibly. “There are a lot of steps from having a nuclear power industry to having a bomb,” she said.

So what is the problem with helping Saudi Arabia meet its growing energy demand with foreign-built nuclear reactors, as countries from China to Vietnam to the United Arab Emirates are doing?

“The simple answer is nothing. Civilian nuclear technology can be safeguarded, and it’s not very well suited to producing nuclear weapons material,” said Jon Wolfsthal, formerly a top nonproliferation official in President Barack Obama’s administration and now director of the Nuclear Crisis Group.

Except for one thing, Wolfsthal added: “Saudi Arabia doesn’t just want reactors—it wants the ability to enrich uranium. And that is very sensitive technology.”

All states that have signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), as Saudi Arabia has, theoretically have the right to enrich uranium. Insisting on that right, Saudi Arabia has refused to forswear uranium enrichment as part of any agreement with the United States. That stands in sharp contrast to the UAE, which inked a novel 123 agreement in 2009 that included an explicit ban on any enrichment activities as a safeguard against proliferation. But Saudi Arabia has refused to consider signing on to that so-called “gold standard.”

“The unwillingness to sign up to the ‘gold standard’ gives people pause,” Wolfsthal said.

Holding onto a sovereign right to enrichment is one thing. A much bigger problem is that, the NPT notwithstanding, Saudi officials have openly said they’d build a nuclear bomb of their own if Iran builds one.

“If Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year.

That’s the main reason that Riyadh’s quest for nuclear power plants causes unease in a way that didn’t happen with other countries that have turned to atomic energy. After its gold-plated nuclear deal with the UAE, for example, the United States signed a 123 agreement with Vietnam—which pointedly did not include the same restrictions.

“Unlike any other potential partner, Saudi officials have been saying, ‘We might need a nuclear weapon,’” said Laura S.H. Holgate, a former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“That’s why it is a very different prospect for us to be thinking about providing even the most peaceful nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia,” said Holgate, now the vice president for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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