In Depth

Is Saudi Arabia the next nuclear power?

Gulf state is close to completing its first nuclear reactor, sparking fears among international regulators

Saudi Arabia has reportedly nearly completed construction of its first nuclear reactor, a development that has sparked concerns about Riyadh’s willingness to comply with international nuclear industry safeguards.

Bloomberg reports that satellite images appear to show a near-complete research facility in the southwest corner of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in the Saudi capital.

“They’re the first [photos] in the public domain to confirm that the program is advancing,” the news agency says.

Interesting Engineering reports that the news has “sparked fears across the globe that the Kingdom plans to use nuclear technology without signing on to the international rules governing the industry”. Countries with nuclear facilities are required to comply with a system of regulations and inspections to ensure that no nuclear material is being siphoned off for use in developing weapons. 

Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry attempted to quell doubts about the Kingdom’s intentions, insisting that the facility’s purpose is to “engage in strictly peaceful scientific, research, educational and training activities in full compliance with international agreements”. But experts are less than convinced by this claim. 

So how serious a threat is Saudi Arabia?

Does Saudi Arabia have nuclear ambitions?

According to CBS News, Saudi Arabia is “eager” to join the nuclear energy community because “rapid economic development has left it hungry for electricity”.

Saudi Arabia insists it is only pursuing nuclear energy, not weapons, and is a signatory of the NPT, which has been signed by most countries with nuclear capability and guarantees that any country that acquires nuclear capability does so for peaceful purposes.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative reports that Muhammad Khilewi, a former Saudi diplomat who defected to the United States in the 1990s, has claimed that Riyadh has been attempting to acquire nuclear weapons since at least 1975. Saudi Arabia denies these claims.

But last year Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told 60 Minutes that his country “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”.

This is troubling for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which regulates nuclear development worldwide. In the late 1990s, the body launched a monitoring programme known as the “additional protocol”, which aimed to prompt all countries with nuclear power to agree to grant “broader access to information about all parts of a State’s nuclear fuel cycle”. 

Saudi Arabia did not agree to the additional protocol. Instead, as IAEA director general Yukiya Amano revealed last month, its inspectors cannot currently gain full access to facilities in Saudi Arabia because its programme is developing its complex “based on an old text” by the IAEA, The Japan Times reports.

Do they have the technical capability to make nuclear weapons?

Satellite images show that construction of a columnar vessel, which will contain atomic fuel, is nearing completion. Once active later in 2019, it will contain enriched uranium fuel, NDTV reports, but the element will be “enriched to a purity well short of levels in weapons”.

Whatever Riyadh’s intentions, experts have made it clear that it will be near-impossible for Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons using their current technology. The outdated IAEA protocol it is currently signed up to will “become obsolete once it needs atomic fuel” from other nuclear producers.

This is because its refusal to adhere to the IAEA’s additional protocol means nuclear inspectors would be unable to access potential sites of interest for monitoring purposes. In this scenario, as The National Interest points out, “no responsible supplier state would agree to transfer enrichment or reprocessing items to [Saudi Arabia]”. 

As an example, The Guardian suggests that there is a “bipartisan majority” in the US Congress that would insist Saudi Arabia could buy US nuclear technology only if it agreed to so-called “gold standard” regulations, which covers “no enrichment of uranium and no reprocessing of plutonium, and the acceptance of intrusive IAEA inspections”.

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says it is highly unlikely that Riyadh will be able to build weapons “any time soon” and “without outside help”.

What would a nuclear Saudi Arabia mean for the world?

The National Interest adds that recent activity “implies that Saudi Arabia is more of a worry than most states regarding the implications of possible acquisition of nuclear weapons”.

“Saudi Arabia has bombed Yemen into becoming a humanitarian catastrophe, has kidnapped and attempted to coerce into resignation the prime minister of Lebanon, and has used diplomatic facilities in foreign countries to assassinate nonviolent dissidents,” the site says.

The New York Times says that if Saudi Arabia were able to develop nuclear weapons, they would likely be used to “protect the kingdom from potential threats from its neighbors - first Israel, then Iraq and Iran”.

Referring to the assassination and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, Brad Sherman, a Democrat representative from California, told the Times: “A country that can’t be trusted with a bone saw shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons.”

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