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Saudi Arabia’s controversial quest for nuclear power, explained

Why the world’s most iconic oil giant wants to go nuclear — and why it could transform the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is in talks with the Trump administration over a nuclear cooperation agreement. But critics and lawmakers are concerned that Riyadh could use nuclear tech to pursue weapons.
Saudi Arabia is in talks with the Trump administration over a nuclear cooperation deal. But lawmakers are concerned that Riyadh could use nuclear tech to pursue weapons.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sitting atop the world’s second-largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has little to worry about when it comes to generating energy.

But the Gulf nation is now angling to make one of the biggest investments in nuclear energy the world has seen. Saudi Arabia plans to spend more than $80 billion to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next quarter century.

The power play shows that the world’s most iconic oil giant is serious about reducing its near-total reliance on oil — and it’s also raising questions about whether the country intends to seek out nuclear weapons in the future.

Saudi Arabia says it’s looking to expand its energy portfolio. If it uses nuclear reactors to generate electricity, that will allow the Gulf country to export more of its oil rather than consume it at home. More exports mean more money for the country’s government.

Energy experts say that Saudi Arabia is trying to make money from its oil reserves as quickly as possible because global demand is expected to decline in the future, with breakthroughs in renewable energy technology and the eventual ubiquity of electric cars. In the long run, it’s aiming to diversify its economy away from oil to generate revenue from sectors like tech and entertainment services.

Currently, Riyadh is in talks with firms from more than 10 countries about buying nuclear technology to build its first two reactors — and American firms are top candidates. But before any US sale, the Trump administration needs to strike a nuclear cooperation pact, known as a “123 agreement,” with Saudi Arabia. In those agreements, countries make promises about how they will and won’t use the powerful nuclear equipment they could buy from the US in the future.

Talks between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia about such a deal are already underway — US Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with Saudi officials in London earlier this month to discuss the matter, and President Trump almost certainly discussed it during his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week.

But nuclear proliferation experts and US lawmakers from both parties are deeply worried about the deal. They’re concerned that Riyadh could try to use the technology to start a nuclear weapons program and make one of most volatile regions in the world even more unstable. In fact, some skeptics think the whole energy argument coming out of Riyadh is merely a cover for its military ambitions.

It’s more than just a hunch. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes on March 18, the Saudi crown prince, widely known as MBS, openly admitted it was a possibility: “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

The Trump administration can try to ensure that never happens. In the 123 agreement, it can get the Saudis to make a legally binding pledge that they won’t pursue uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing down the road — the activities that would allow it to build nuclear weapons.

But the Trump administration is reportedly considering allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium in current negotiations. Experts say there are two main reasons the president may do this.

First, Trump has demonstrated an unusual soft spot for Saudi Arabia: It was the first country he visited on his first trip abroad as president, and he has backed some of Saudi Arabia’s most radical policies, like its isolation campaign against Qatar last summer and its destructive military intervention in Yemen.

Second, Trump might be distracted by the prize of winning multibillion-dollar contracts for US nuclear construction companies in desperate need of business. The temptation to settle for a deal that gives the Saudis a path to the bomb might just be too great to overcome.

Saudi says it wants nuclear power for energy purposes. That may not be the whole story.

Saudi Arabia has generally described its ambitions for a civil nuclear energy program as a way to increase energy production and said it doesn’t want to use the program to build weapons.

“Not only are we not interested in any way to diverting nuclear technology to military use, we are very active in non-proliferation by others,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said at a joint press conference with Secretary Perry in December.

Energy experts say that it certainly makes sense for Saudi Arabia to look into new ways to generate energy so that it can export more of its oil before the value of oil plunges in the future. But they also say that it’s strange that the country is focusing so much on nuclear, rather than renewable, energy.

Joe Romm, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Energy during the Clinton years, told me that Saudi Arabia is an outstanding candidate for using solar energy to power much of the country. Its vast and extremely sunny deserts are naturally suited to providing electricity to the country during the day.

Given that Saudi Arabia can build solar power facilities and produce solar energy at incredibly low costs, Romm says, it “doesn’t make a lot of sense from an energy point of view” that Saudi is leaning so much toward the nuclear option, which is notoriously expensive.

Comparing Saudi Arabia’s plans to invest in renewable energy versus its planned investments in nuclear energy, Romm estimated that Riyadh would be trying to generate at least three times more electricity from nuclear reactors than from renewable energy.

And American foreign policy and nuclear nonproliferation experts generally think that the motive behind emphasizing one program over the other is obvious: building weapons.

“I think a main driver, if not the main driver [of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program], is its security competition with Iran,” Kingston Reif, a nonproliferation expert at the Arms Control Association, told me.

Iran is Saudi Arabia’s archrival in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is worried that Iran could use its civil nuclear program to make weapons in the future, and tip the balance of power in the region in its favor. The nuclear deal that Iran signed on to in 2015 heavily restricts Iran’s ability to make the materials required for a nuclear bomb, but crucial restrictions in the agreement begin to expire around 2030.

And the restrictions could vanish far more quickly than that: Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the nuclear deal, and Iran could respond to a withdrawal by taking steps toward weapons production in a matter of days.

Since MBS has openly admitted that Saudi Arabia would feel compelled to chase after a bomb if Iran did, it’s clear that it must see a civil nuclear program as a potential military asset.

Can Trump actually make a strong deal with the Saudis?

The Trump administration is currently in ongoing talks with the Saudis about a nuclear cooperation agreement, and it probably came up when the crown prince met with Trump at the White House on March 20. (Neither Saudi Arabia nor the US’s official readouts of the meeting explicitly mention the nuclear cooperation agreement, but both allude to “new commercial deals.”)

Recent reports suggest that the White House may allow Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium as part of the arrangement. A country can enrich uranium to produce fuel for its nuclear reactors, but that same process can also be used to make an atomic bomb — and that has US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle very concerned.

“The Crown Prince’s interview just last week is reason enough to have the administration pump the breaks on the negotiations and insist that there will be no 123 agreement that includes enriching and reprocessing,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, from the little we do know from the administration, it is looking at this deal in terms of economics and commerce, and national security implications only register as a minor issue, if at all,” she said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has told the administration that there’s bipartisan opposition in Congress to a 123 agreement that allows for enrichment.

The White House has to submit the agreement to Congress for review, and lawmakers have the option to pass a joint resolution of disapproval to block it.

But if that were to happen, it could ultimately backfire: The Saudis might turn to Russian or Chinese bidders for nuclear tech if they’re rebuffed by the US. And analysts say the Russians and Chinese are less likely to be stringent about restricting Saudi Arabia’s enrichment or reprocessing ambitions. For that reason, some analysts argue that Washington might have to consider a compromise with Riyadh.

“I would prefer to have America’s nuclear industry in Saudi Arabia than to have Russian or China’s, so I think it’s useful that we’re reengaging with the Saudis. We should try to get the best restraints on enrichment and reprocessing, including a ban for some significant length of time, say 20 or 25 years,” Robert Einhorn, a former State Department adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, told the Washington Post. “We should show some flexibility.”

Saudi Arabia considers the ability to enrich uranium its “sovereign” right, and it wasn’t able to settle on a 123 agreement with the Obama administration precisely because President Obama refused to grant them that capacity.

Alexandra Bell, an Obama-era State Department arms control expert, told me that the Saudis won’t budge “without high-level pressure from the White House.” That means sustained pressure from people like the president himself or top officials like Energy Secretary Perry are key to extracting any kind of concession on enrichment from Saudi Arabia.

But Trump might not be all that interested in staying focused on that goal. He looks at the issue through a different lens than his predecessor — the prospect of boosting American business could eclipse security concerns for him. Last year, when Trump struck his enormous $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, he was eager to sell it to the public as a way to create “jobs, jobs, jobs” for the US.

In this case, a deal to build nuclear tech with the Saudis would provide a boost to struggling US nuclear construction companies. Westinghouse, the most prominent US bidder, is currently going through bankruptcy proceedings and has shed thousands of US jobs because of it.

When the Saudis negotiate with the Trump administration in the coming weeks, they’ll probably consider Trump’s eagerness to claim another job-creating deal to be a source of leverage.

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