There should be no Saudi uranium enrichment

By Victor Gilinsky | August 28, 2023

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2019. In a 2018 CBS News interview, the crown prince said that his country would obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

There is increasing talk of a United States-brokered “grand bargain” on Middle East security, the core of which would be normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. It isn’t clear what motivates Joe Biden to press for this deal now. The obvious goal would involve the eternal search for peace in the Middle East, but there are hints that such a bargain may have more to do with keeping the Saudis out of China’s orbit. One thing we know, Biden’s lieutenants are lobbying hard in the Senate for acceptance of some version of far-reaching demands from the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, among them access to uranium enrichment technology that would ostensibly provide fuel for future Saudi nuclear power plants. Indeed, enrichment is a step in the production of nuclear reactor fuel. It is also a vital part of one of two paths to the atomic bomb.

As always, the “realists” argue that we can’t be too fastidious about our partners. If we refuse to accommodate Saudi nuclear aspirations, then Russia and China will step in, and we will have less influence in the Middle East. But the record of “realistic” foreign policy is not so great, either. Indulging the crown prince in his illicit quest is just too dangerous.

The crown prince hasn’t been shy about revealing how he may use a civilian nuclear power project. In a 2018 CBS News interview he said, “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.” Will he wait for that development? He made no mention of working through the international system to prevent an Iranian bomb. He wants a nuclear power program on a hair trigger, ready to convert quickly to a nuclear weapon program.

That isn’t of course the polite version of the crown prince’s plan. He says he wants to use domestic uranium, of which the Saudis claimed to have large deposits, to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors. He wants to produce fuel domestically, ergo he needs to acquire enrichment technology. But despite Saudi claims, there are no significant uranium deposits in the country. Recent reports reveal that the teams of geologists sent to search for it have turned up empty-handed. That hasn’t, however, caused the crown prince to lose interest in enrichment, which is itself a revealing fact about his intentions—and his reliance on American cupidity. To cope with what the Saudis regard as excessive suspicion of others, they have suggested they are open to accepting some modest additional oversight arrangements, which they cynically expect Congress to accept after members engage in some ritual handwringing.

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You would think the Saudi insistence on inclusion of enrichment, no matter how restricted, would be a non-starter for a US-Saudi “123” agreement for nuclear cooperation. (Compliance with Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act is essential for any significant US-Saudi nuclear trade.) But such common sense is a thin reed to lean on when it comes to Washington nuclear politics. Powerful lobbies have been pushing for years for sale of power reactors in the Middle East and for generous subsidies to allow this to happen. The departments of Energy and State will be supporting this, too, claiming that international “safeguards” would be effective in preventing misuse of civilian nuclear facilities. The official line on nuclear energy is still Atoms for Peace, as it has been since President Eisenhower’s 1953 speech. Recall that George W. Bush said even Iranian power reactors, by themselves, were perfectly legitimate.

The problem is that hardly anyone in Congress has any real understanding of nuclear technology. The members are swept off their feet by promises of safe, non-carbon producing energy sources, especially when nuclear proponents use adjectives like “small” and “modular” and “advanced.” Congressional discussions on international aspects seldom get beyond “restoring America’s competitive advantage in nuclear energy.”

There is also little understanding of the limitations of international “safeguards,” the inspection system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (Is there any realistic recourse if the Saudis break the rules?) It is indicative of Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward the IAEA that it has used every stratagem to minimize its safeguards responsibilities. The minimization strategy does not violate IAEA requirements, yes, but a country anxious to demonstrate its nuclear bona fides should be more forthcoming in its nonproliferation cooperation.

The 2008 US-India civil nuclear agreement is an eternal warning about how American international nuclear policy can go off the rails when the president and Congress are swept away by visions of gaining an ally against China plus the prospect of dozens of power reactor sales. That agreement ran a truck through the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and none of the sales of nuclear power plants materialized.

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The Saudis know Americans can be made to swallow principle—they recently succeeded in humbling the US president on human rights and oil prices—and so are unlikely to soften their stance on inclusion of enrichment in a 123 agreement. The White House will be looking for a formula that accepts it, but adds some restriction, or appearance of restriction, or another sweetener, perhaps related to Palestinian rights, that would allow members of the House and Senate to go along with inclusion of enrichment in a US-Saudi agreement.

Who would stand in the way? Not the Republicans: They love the Saudis. The one possibility is if Israel balks at any deal that includes Saudi enrichment. Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told Democratic Party lawmakers visiting Israel recently that he opposes a potential Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal that allows Riyadh to enrich uranium because it would harm Israel’s security. But the Israeli government’s response—that is, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s—has been ambiguous.

Somebody needs to stand up. Not only should the United States say no to Saudi enrichment, but Washington should also rethink the entire notion of nuclear power reactors in Saudi Arabia. Such reactors, coupled with a reprocessing facility to extract plutonium from used fuel, which the Saudis will surely want as well, provide the other path to a bomb, a plutonium bomb.

With its constant threat of wars, the Middle East is no place for nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors in the region have been targeted in aerial attacks a dozen times. The safety issues that followed the capture by the Russians of the Zaporizhzhia power reactors in Ukraine should teach us something, too. Nuclear reactors do not belong in regions of potential conflict.

The ultimate argument against a US-Saudi nuclear deal is the crown prince himself, who is in line to be king and for practical purposes already is. He is a liar and a gruesome killer. Saudi Arabia, for all its modern trappings, is a primitive state with no effective checks on his powers. The king makes the laws, rules by decree, and is the chief judge. He has powers the British king gave up in the 13th century. Saudi Arabia has a long way to go before it will be a safe place for nuclear energy.


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Mary Jane Williams
Mary Jane Williams
7 months ago

Dr. Gilinsky, Will you just come out and say “The whole nuclear era was a tragic mistake and we should end it right now?”

Eric Weis
Eric Weis
7 months ago

This article, and decades of American nuclear policy, are paradigms of naïveté. The nuclear genie has already spread among the nations of the world. Aside from nuclear power, “Atoms For Peace” (i.e. nuclear science and nuclear medicine) has become ubiquitous. I know this, on the basis of my having been an international sales manager in nuclear medicine. My firm dealt with nearly every nation, including Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and even places like Vietnam. This horse truly left the barn In the 1960s. Nuclear policy now should be focused on meaningful international accords, designed to keep weapons under control,… Read more »

bob slentz
bob slentz
7 months ago

Somebody needs to stand up. Not only should the United States say no to Saudi enrichment, but Washington should also rethink the entire notion of nuclear power reactors in Saudi Arabia. Such reactors, coupled with a reprocessing facility to extract plutonium from used fuel, which the Saudis will surely want as well, provide the other path to a bomb, a plutonium bomb. ya think? this could be/would be a very dangerous path to take thinking is if we say no, they’ll just go elsewhere. then let them do so and no reason they would not choose all means at their… Read more »

Mark Robinowitz
Mark Robinowitz
7 months ago

Given how long fission products – and Pu-239 – will be dangerous, there’s no way to guarantee that future societies won’t have the maturity to cope with isolating these materials essentially forever (not that any of us now have shown this ability).

As for the House of Saud, a petroleum geologist once said to me “what happens to their society when their oil reserves decline to the point they can no longer trade oil for food imports?”