An expert's point of view on a current event.

To Prevent Proliferation, Stop Enrichment and Reprocessing in the Middle East

There is a risk of a nuclear cascade across the region. The United States can stop it by enforcing the gold standard of nonproliferation.

A view of the construction site of Turkey's first nuclear power plant, Akkuyu, pictured during the opening ceremony in the Mediterranean Mersin region on April 3, 2018.
A view of the construction site of Turkey's first nuclear power plant, Akkuyu, pictured during the opening ceremony in the Mediterranean Mersin region on April 3, 2018. IBRAHIM MESE/AFP via Getty Images

If Washington is serious about blocking the further spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, it must apply a firm rule: no spent reactor fuel reprocessing or uranium enrichment—by anyone in the region. Uranium enrichment allows production of bomb-grade uranium, and spent fuel reprocessing extracts plutonium, the other important nuclear explosive.

Washington insiders, including nuclear lobbyists and nuclear enthusiasts within the Trump administration, oppose such a restriction. The nuclear power industry is still dangling deals before receptive Middle Eastern rulers, notably the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and pressing Congress to allow accommodative “agreements for cooperation” with Middle Eastern countries to make the deals more attractive. Although the United Arab Emirates accepted the gold standard—obligating it to forgo enriching or reprocessing—Saudi Arabia, with more on its mind than the generation of electricity, detests this condition. Middle East experts claim it is offensive to Riyadh’s pride, and Washington should therefore take a softer approach.

The problem is, softer approaches are inconsistent with nonproliferation. Even proponents of relatively lax nuclear deal-making admit there is a “security dimension” to the Saudi interest in nuclear power. It leaked this summer that the Saudis secretly contracted with China to help the kingdom mine and process uranium, which suggests interest in an independent fuel cycle. Combined with the brutality the world knows the crown prince is capable of, and his proven dishonesty, the U.S. government should not even be thinking of supplying Saudi Arabia with nuclear technology.

Washington will soon face other decisions: U.S. agreements for civilian nuclear cooperation are coming up for renewal with Egypt and Morocco in 2021, and with Turkey in 2023. The nuclear industry will try to keep Congress from imposing strict rules—industry seldom has to worry about the executive branch, as both Democratic and Republican administrations traditionally support U.S. nuclear exports—but it is vital to maintain the of the gold standard for all three.

Ideally, it should be U.S. policy to eliminate fuel facilities that can produce nuclear explosives from Morocco to Iran. This would have to include Israel. It would not affect Israel’s existing nuclear arsenal but would cap it and point the way for its security to depend less on nuclear weapons.

Enforcing the gold standard for the region would signal a serious effort to end the spread of nuclear weapons there as opposed to the standing policy of minimizing proliferation—in effect, acquiescing to it so long as it proceeds at a slow pace. In past Middle East agreements (with the exception of the one with the UAE), the United States controlled reprocessing and enrichment, but only of U.S.-origin nuclear materials. That’s not good enough. Washington must insist on a ban covering nuclear materials from any source.

Nuclear export boosters argue no country will agree to these conditions, especially when states could get easier terms from Russia and China. The result of being so principled, they say, would be to lose export income and the ostensible influence and nonproliferation oversight they insist comes with being a nuclear supplier.

The truth is the United States has more to gain from being firm than not. The prospects for major U.S. nuclear reactor exports are nearly nonexistent; there are no longer any major U.S. nuclear reactor vendors. Westinghouse, which is often put in this category, hasn’t been U.S.-owned for 20 years. Its last two nuclear construction projects drove it into bankruptcy and almost bankrupted its Japanese owners. A Canadian firm, Brookfield Asset Management, bought what remained of it.

Westinghouse’s U.S.-based division exports fresh reactor fuel and earns fees for managing and advising nuclear operators. It is a shadow of its former self. Nuclear lobbyists and boosters are pushing for federal financial support to revive U.S. nuclear reactor manufacturing and to grant generous loan terms for foreign customers.

The argument that Middle Eastern states will not accept the gold standard ignores the strategic incentives for countries to seal U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements even if the United States is not the main reactor vendor for any project. As the UAE has learned, staying close to the United States by agreeing to firm nonproliferation standards provides security ties and military benefits including intelligence sharing and top-end tech arms sales most Middle East countries would not receive from Russia or China.

What’s more, the restriction on plutonium extraction and use would impose no penalty on the production of electricity. Plutonium was once thought to be the fuel of the future, powering so-called fast reactors. But that dream was punctured long ago. It was based on the assumption that uranium was scarce, that huge numbers of uranium reactors would rapidly use it up, and that reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium would be cheap.

All three assumptions turned out to be completely wrong. As for enriching uranium, none of the Middle Eastern countries are going to have enough reactors to justify domestic enrichment programs for any commercial purpose. The international commercial market in enrichment has ample capacity. The only penalty restricting this technology would impose is to these countries’ sense of scientific national pride.

This sensitivity, however, is misplaced. In fact, nuclear power is no longer a pathbreaking technology that defines a country’s scientific status, nor is it commercially competitive. For example, large light-water reactors will never be built again in the United States—they’re simply too expensive. Small reactors have some advantages, but they will likely be even more expensive per unit of energy. The Middle East’s energy future lies in investments in renewables, natural gas, and the integration of pipelines and electric grids. That should be part of Washington’s message.

The main U.S. objective, however, should be to make the Middle East’s security consistent with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Earlier this month, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called for a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East to help bolster the treaty.

Our proposal for a no-enrichment and no-reprocessing zone for all countries in the area may be more feasible, and if achieved, have more lasting significance—it would preclude the possibility of non-nuclear states making nuclear weapons and would thereby undercut the argument for any state in the region to possess such weapons to defend itself.

Victor Gilinsky, a physicist, was a commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and the author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.