Congressional Considerations for a US–Saudi Nuclear Agreement

November 16, 2018
Joy Nasr

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies held a luncheon panel at the US Senate on Friday, October 26, 2018, to discuss the status of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)’s nuclear-energy program, prospects for a US–Saudi nuclear cooperation, and the considerations for Congress in assessing a nuclear-cooperation agreement with the Kingdom. The panel included Dr. Chen Kane, director of the Middle East Nonproliferation program at CNS, Ambassador Robert Einhorn, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ms. Corey Hinderstein, vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Speakers discussed the drivers behind the Saudi nuclear program, the different possible outcomes of the US–KSA negotiations, and their implications for US nuclear and foreign policy. Ms. Hinderstein also shared observations from her recent trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with officials involved with the Saudi nuclear program.

Dr. Kane discussed three main areas of concern with the Saudi nuclear program. First is the possibility of Saudi Arabia developing a nuclear-weapon capability. This concern is based on Saudi statements of their intent to develop nuclear weapons if Iran were to acquire them, which signals a hedging strategy. Saudi Arabia has also refused to adopt basic nonproliferation agreements such as a modified small quantity protocol (known as SQPs) safeguards agreement, the Additional Protocol (AP), or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, raising questions about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions.

(L-R): Dr. Chen Kane, Amb. Robert Einhorn, Ms. Corey Hinderstein

The second concern relates to Saudi Arabia’s professionalism, politicization of the program, and unrealistic judgment of its own human, industrial, and economic capabilities. For example, Saudi officials have publicly discussed plans to geographically isolate Qatar by creating a canal and using it as a nuclear-waste disposal site. Although this plan is unlikely to materialize, it demonstrates a willingness to politicize the program at the expense of professionalism and credibility. It also reveals the Saudis’ failure to understand how such a stunt has further undermined their program’s credibility in the eyes of outsiders. Saudi officials have also exaggerated the economic attractiveness and competitive advantage offered by local Saudi industry, which they claim they intend to use in producing sensitive or advanced technologies such as fuel fabrication, valves, pipes, enrichment, and reprocessing. Third, there is a mismatch between KSA’s declared intent for the program and its recent statements and actions. Saudi Arabia has argued that nuclear power will offset increasing domestic energy consumption as part of their massive economic reform campaign known as Vision 2030. However, both sites identified for the nuclear-power plants are on the country’s industry-heavy east coast, which consumes only 19 percent of the Kingdom’s annual energy consumption. The more sensible economic decision would be to locate the new plants to meet household energy needs, which constitutes about 49 percent of the annual energy consumption.

Ambassador Einhorn pointed out that if the United States insists Saudi Arabia forgo domestic enrichment and reprocessing capabilities—the so-called “gold standard” of US nuclear- cooperation agreements—the Saudis will pursue cooperation with other suppliers with lower nonproliferation standards. Besides the obvious alternatives of Russia or China, Saudi Arabia may likely cooperate with South Korea, which, under its nuclear-cooperation agreement with the Kingdom, allows Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, without prior consent. The United States should pursue an agreement that would be palatable to the Saudis while also preventing them from attaining an enrichment capability. The current US proposal falls short of the gold standard but still requires Saudi Arabia sign the Additional Protocol and to forgo the pursuit of enrichment technology for a set number of years. The Kingdom has agreed to renounce domestic enrichment for a specific period of time but maintains its refusal to adopt the AP, which Ambassador Einhorn noted was of concern, considering Iran has been provisionally implementing the AP under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The next round of US–KSA negotiations is expected to start in early 2019. Despite the continued impasse, Ambassador Einhorn argued that, even with the gold standard out of reach, the United States should continue to pursue an agreement that requires more nonproliferation restrictions and oversight than would other suppliers. He referred to his article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which proposed an agreement that includes a domestic prohibition on enrichment and reprocessing for 15 years, as well as a bilateral US–Saudi commission on fuel-cycle options to discuss the future supply of nuclear fuel and alternatives to a domestic fuel cycle. Saudi adherence to the AP should be included in any agreement. In addition, he suggested establishing a common understanding on export-control policy among the suppliers on exporting nuclear technologies to the Middle East, which could include a prohibition on exporting enrichment and reprocessing technologies; AP as a condition of supply; requiring prior consent rights on any enrichment and reprocessing; and a commitment of spent-fuel take back.

Ms. Hinderstein outlined four observations from her recent trip to the Kingdom to meet with officials involved in the Saudi nuclear program. First, the Saudi nuclear-power program is very much “real and alive,” despite international skepticism. Saudi Arabia does have an increasing energy demand: it has the same petroleum consumption as India, a country with more than 40 times its population, and its need for water desalination is rising rapidly. To that end, Ms. Hinderstein noted that the Saudis are looking at two large-scale reactors and multiple small modular reactors (SMRs) to meet their needs, a significant scaling back from its original plan for 16 nuclear-power plants. On the regulatory front, King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), the Saudi nuclear-energy promoter and regulatory “incubator,” is in the process of setting up an independent (though government-controlled) Saudi nuclear regulator that is expected to be functional by the end of 2018.

Second, Ms. Hinderstein noted that while energy needs and rationale are real, hedging is real as well. The program is first and foremost strategic, and decisions will not be made solely based on an economic rationale. Third, Ms. Hinderstein remarked that the Saudis require plenty of support, especially on safeguards, safety, and security issues. Their focus so far on these fronts was external, and Saudis have a long way to go on building internal capacity. Fourth, Ms. Hinderstein found that Iran is a ubiquitous topic in all conversations with Saudi officials. The Kingdom is adamant against accepting any constraints that Iran has not accepted. She observed that Saudis seem to hold two contradictory beliefs with regard to Iran: while they believe a better Iran deal can and should be negotiated, they also see in Tehran a revolutionary, ideological regime whose malevolent regional ambitions cannot be constrained or controlled. These opposing beliefs are hard to reconcile, and indicate that, if the United States hopes to manage KSA nuclear prospects, it should go hand in hand with an Iran strategy. Lastly, Ms. Hinderstein found that the Saudi nuclear community is small, and it is difficult to find institutional or national champions advocating for nonproliferation.

In closing, the speakers agreed that the Saudi nuclear program is fundamentally strategic in its nature, and decisions by the Saudi leadership will likely be politically motivated.

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