Mark Hibbs is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, based in Germany. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements. Recently, Hibbs published an article on the Arms Control Wonk website about what Saudi Arabia’s plans for using nuclear energy mean for nuclear verification. He examined how the kingdom could show transparency in its nuclear program and meet its international obligations, at a time when there is fear that a resumption of Iran’s nuclear program could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Diwan interviewed Hibbs in early December to discuss this general topic.
Michael Young: You recently wrote an article on the Saudi decision to significantly expand its nuclear research. What did the kingdom do, and how can it demonstrate transparency on nuclear safeguards?
Mark Hibbs: Since 2016 Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sponsored plans to deploy nuclear energy as part of an ambitious national modernization project for Saudi Arabia called Vision 2030. Following from this, the kingdom is now building its first nuclear reactor—a small research installation expected to be finished by the end of 2019. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia plans to build nuclear power reactors to generate electricity.
Saudi Arabia is a party to the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and must submit its nuclear activities to verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But because the kingdom has virtually no nuclear infrastructure, the IAEA until now has exempted it from safeguards inspections. The new reactor would change that situation: Saudi Arabia next year will have to declare the unit to the IAEA and negotiate to allow the IAEA to carry out inspections. Beyond that, Riyadh can follow the example of most nuclear power countries and conclude what is known as an additional protocol. This would give the IAEA more information about Saudi nuclear activities, in the interest of developing confidence that all its nuclear materials are declared and used peacefully.
MY: Why would Saudi Arabia need a nuclear reactor, given its access to hydrocarbons and solar energy as energy sources?
MH: Saudi Arabia sees nuclear energy and renewables as complementary future electricity sources. In 2010 it set up a single organization, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE), to add these technologies. Today Saudi Arabia generates over 90 percent of its electric power by burning hydrocarbons; by 2032 Saudi Arabia aims to reduce the hydrocarbon share to 50 percent and substitute solar, wind, and nuclear power for oil and gas.
Unlike nuclear power, solar and wind power are intermittent energy sources. Thermal power plants, as well as nuclear ones, could stabilize the country’s future power grid if it relies highly upon renewables, but nuclear technology has other, strategic attributes that no doubt figure in Riyadh’s decisionmaking. Vision 2030 aims to advance and diversify the technology base of the Saudi economy and Saudi officials believe that nuclear technology will continue to evolve worldwide. Riyadh may see nuclear power as a hedge against the risk of future climate change-inspired trade embargos aimed at oil-producing states, and nuclear technology as a hedge against a future nuclear weapon threat in the region. A nuclear-powered Saudi Arabia might join the group of some 50 advanced economies that govern how nuclear technology, materials, and equipment are shared and secured.
But it will take Saudi Arabia a lot longer than fifteen years to refashion its electricity sector and questions have been raised whether its ambitious reforms are slowing. To pay for these plans, Riyadh since 2016 has counted on an IPO for Aramco, the Saudi petroleum company that might in the process be valued at well over $1 trillion. However, the IPO has proven difficult to arrange and in August it was postponed. A financial deal with Japanese investors to set up the world’s largest solar energy production complex in Saudi Arabia was shelved this fall, apparently in part over differences inside the Saudi ruling elite. The Saudis also lowered their sights in the nuclear enterprise: While in 2016 KA-CARE planned for the construction of sixteen nuclear power reactors by 2032, currently it is focusing on building two units, perhaps two more thereafter, and the timelines for construction are not set in stone.
MY: Do you see the Saudi move as a sign of expanding nuclear proliferation in the Middle East?
MH: Nuclear power in Saudi Arabia does not imply that there will be more proliferation in the region. But the residual risk will increase, because Saudi Arabia appears locked in a bitter rivalry with Iran in which Riyadh sees Tehran’s sensitive nuclear capabilities as an existential threat. History is not reassuring, since Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Syria have all engaged in nuclear activities that either directly or indirectly can be devoted to making nuclear weapons. Moreover the NPT expressly permits its parties to quit the treaty on grounds of national security. That fact hovers over the provocative vows made this year by Saudi leaders that Riyadh would obtain nuclear weapons if Iran went first.
After Iran, in 2009 the United Arab Emirates became the second country in the Persian Gulf to develop nuclear power. As a condition, the UAE concluded an additional protocol with the IAEA, and it also committed not to engage on its territory in sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities related to both nuclear power and nuclear weapons—uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel reprocessing. Today no one is very concerned that the UAE will obtain nuclear weapons. But Saudi Arabia is a far bigger and more ambitious player in the region. Because its nuclear capabilities are few, the residual risk that the kingdom will proliferate may in fact be small, but it will be greater than for the UAE.
MY: Might the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran facilitate a slide toward proliferation?
MH: The decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran, was supported by Saudi Arabia, which endorsed the view that the JCPOA did not sufficiently contain Iran’s nuclear development. Because Saudi narratives depict Iran not as a normal state but instead as a determined aggressor aiming to thwart Saudi strategic interests, should Iran ultimately respond to a collapse of the JCPOA by resuming and accelerating sensitive nuclear activities, the risk of proliferation by Saudi Arabia will increase. So it’s up to Saudi Arabia’s foreign nuclear technology partners to try to limit that risk by encouraging the kingdom to embrace transparency and restraint, while also speaking to Riyadh’s security concerns. Until now, Saudi Arabia may have counted on strategic and commercial competition among its potential nuclear vendors to afford it leverage in negotiating less-restrictive nuclear non-proliferation terms.
MY: How has the United States reacted to the Saudi announcement on its intentions?
MH: The United States is an ally of Saudi Arabia and has supported Saudi plans to develop nuclear energy. Riyadh and Washington have been negotiating a bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation, but no draft accord has yet been submitted to the U.S. Congress for approval. A critical issue is whether the Saudis will formally agree to limit their activities in the nuclear fuel cycle.
The background for this is a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement the United States concluded with the UAE in which the Emiratis committed not to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel on their territory. An “agreed minute” in the text set forth that the terms of the agreement would serve as minimum standards for future U.S. agreements elsewhere in the Middle East. So far it would appear that Saudi Arabia has not agreed to those conditions. Until now, Washington probably has had more leverage over the UAE than over Riyadh. That could change, but in 2019 the political fallout in the U.S. from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will prompt U.S. lawmakers to challenge Donald Trump’s resolve to strengthen America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. This will include making it more difficult for the United States to support nuclear power development in the kingdom, especially if Riyadh were not to consent to do things that go beyond the letter of its NPT obligations.
There are no plans at KA-CARE to develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Should Riyadh nonetheless as a matter of principle decline to programmatically suspend or forego its future option for uranium enrichment or reprocessing, it would express something like the position taken by Iran beginning in the early 2000s. Then, facing opprobrium after the IAEA confirmed that Tehran had long deceived it about the scope and extent of its nuclear activities, Iran claimed that it was the victim of U.S.-orchestrated discriminatory pressure. It urged the Non-Aligned Movement to defend the “rights” of NPT parties to conduct the full bandwidth of nuclear fuel cycle activities associated with nuclear power.
Looking beyond, it is highly unlikely that states in the world that have nuclear fuel cycle technology will share their most sensitive knowhow with any country, including Saudi Arabia. This implies that the trajectory for the indigenous development of these technologies by Saudi Arabia may be quite long. With that in mind, should Saudi Arabia take steps beyond its NPT obligations in support of transparency and responsible nuclear trade—short of legally foregoing enrichment and reprocessing—it could go far to limit the residual proliferation risk posed by its nuclear energy program.