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The Problem with Saudi Arabia’s Program Isn’t Yellowcake

People are panicking about the wrong thing.

Words: Noah Mayhew
Pictures: BASHAER

Concerns raised in recent reporting on alleged Saudi nuclear sites, including the uranium extraction facility reported by the Wall Street Journal, are focused on symptoms of a problem rather than the larger solution. The problem with Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program is not that it may acquire a domestic supply of uranium. It is that nuclear safeguards (measures put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to prevent peaceful nuclear technology from being diverted for weapons development) in Saudi Arabia are of the lowest conceivable order.

In other words, people are panicking about the wrong thing. Rather than raise concern that Saudi Arabia may extract uranium from seawater, governments, in particular nuclear supplier states, should be pressuring the Saudis to bring their safeguards agreements with the IAEA up to the de facto modern standard.

Saudi Arabia has a basic safeguards agreement with the IAEA that covers all the nuclear material in the country or under its control anywhere. But it also has what the IAEA calls a “small quantities protocol,” or SQP, which suspends most reporting and inspection requirements. Saudi Arabia’s SQP is based on an outdated model that the IAEA found in 2005 to be too easy to qualify for and suspended too many safeguards requirements. Under the new SQP model, Saudi Arabia would no longer qualify, but the IAEA has no mechanism to force Saudi Arabia to rescind its outdated SQP status.

Until Saudi Arabia rescinds its SQP, the IAEA will not be able to conduct the early verification activities that it normally would for a country embarking on nuclear energy. And it won’t be required to do that until its quantities of nuclear material breach a certain threshold or when nuclear material is introduced into a facility, ergo once a country already has the material.

Threats from the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018 that Saudi Arabia would acquire nuclear weapons if Iran did make this assurance all the more important.

The value of early verification and continuity of knowledge on a nuclear program is immeasurable to assure other countries that there is no threat of a nuclear weapons program. Threats from the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018 that Saudi Arabia would acquire nuclear weapons if Iran did make this assurance all the more important.

The good news is that none of Saudi’s nuclear facilities are yet operational. This means that, if Saudi Arabia can be convinced to rescind its SQP at an early date, the IAEA can get a comprehensive overview of its nuclear program, which will allow it to credibly dispel fears of undeclared nuclear material for nefarious purposes. Even better would be to rescind the SQP and conclude an additional protocol with the IAEA, which is a voluntary legal agreement that gives the IAEA more tools to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material in a country.

Saudi Arabia may have its own motivations to rescind its SQP and accept an additional protocol. Pursuing nuclear energy programs in line with international norms would allow Saudi Arabia to take full advantage of international partnerships, both in electricity production and in the other peaceful uses of nuclear energy. On one hand, oil and gas generate nearly 60 percent of Saudi’s electricity, so the addition of nuclear power to Saudi’s energy mix would allow the export of significantly higher quantities of its oil. On the other, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear research industry could produce much-needed isotopes for medicine and become a major provider of clean water through desalination.

By the same token, nuclear supplier countries have an opportunity to influence the development of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy program. Although Saudi Arabia currently has a handful of nuclear facilities under construction, its goal is to have 16 nuclear power plants. That means that countries that the kingdom chooses to do nuclear business with will have considerable influence over the development of the program. Saudi Arabia is actively courting the United States, South Korea and Russia for nuclear supply. It has also concluded cooperation arrangements with France, China, Argentina and Kazakhstan. All of these countries are members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a consortium of nuclear supplier countries that agree on standards for the export of nuclear technology.

These NSG countries could and should stipulate that Saudi Arabia rescind its SQP and conclude an additional protocol as a condition for supplying nuclear technology. What Saudi Arabia and the major nuclear suppliers do next will be critical in the development of a Saudi nuclear energy program and have implications for nuclear power in the Middle East overall.

Conducting these activities with transparency and early access by the IAEA would allay any realistic fears of a nuclear weapons program while contributing significantly to sustainable development in the Middle East. If Saudi Arabia continues to operate without regard to international norms, not only could it adversely affect its nuclear program, but indeed the future of nuclear energy in the Middle East.

Noah Mayhew is a Research Associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, focusing primarily on nuclear nonproliferation, IAEA safeguards and nuclear verification, arms control, US-Russian relations and the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology. 

Noah Mayhew

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