Spearhead Analysis – 16.02.2018
By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Reportedly, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over a span of next 20-25 years.
According to information published by the World Nuclear Association ‘ In April 2010 a Saudi royal decree said: “The development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom’s growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources.”
In 2011, KSA and France signed a nuclear cooperation agreement, building on this in 2015 another agreement with the French agreement was signed to undertake a feasibility study for building two nuclear power reactors.
In 2011, Saudi Government also signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea for cooperation in nuclear R&D, including building nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as training, safety and waste management. In 2013 Korean Electric Power Cooperation (KEPCO) offered support for the localization of nuclear technology, along with joint research and development of nuclear technologies if Saudi Arabia purchases South Korean reactors. In 2015 the two nations signed more contracts to deepen nuclear energy cooperation.
Saudi Arabia also reached out to China and by 2012 an agreement was reached between the two countries in relation to nuclear plant development and maintenance & research reactors. Further agreements to deepen cooperation were signed between China National Nuclear Cooperation(CNNC) and King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA- CARE) in 2014 and 2016.
The Kingdom also entered an agreement with Russian Atomic Energy state cooperation – Rosatom- in June 2015 for cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. In October 2017, KA-CARE and Rosatom signed agreements focusing on small and medium reactors, and on building a new research reactor.
However, it is believed that a full nuclear cooperation agreement with the USA is vital for the progression of Saudi nuclear power plans.’
The agenda of US- Saudi civil nuclear cooperation faced glitches in the past due to divergences over certain US mandated safeguard measures.
Saudi Arabia ratified the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1988 and a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2009. However, it has not signed nor ratified an additional protocol- which provides the IAEA with expanded rights of access to nuclear information and locations. The United States in recent years has not negotiated a civil nuclear cooperation agreement aka ‘123’ with a state that had not signed IAEA’s additional protocol.
Furthermore, US civil nuclear cooperation with foreign countries requires US firms to attain consent of the United States government on enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear material supplied by the United States or produced in US-supplied reactors. Reportedly, previous US-Saudi nuclear cooperation talks stymied over different approaches on enrichment and reprocessing of uranium.
The US has so far relaxed its terms on enrichment and reprocessing with certain countries such Japan, some European partners, China and India. Whereas, the US civil nuclear energy cooperation agreements with countries such as UAE and Taiwan, contain legally binding commitments on hosts not to engage in any enrichment or reprocessing- terming them in compliance with the favoured ‘Gold Standard’ agreement. Many are of the view that the Gold Standard agreement has set a correct precedent for global non-proliferation and arms control measures.
However, In November 2017, Christopher Ford, former-special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation on the National Security Council staff, stated “that a ban on enrichment and reprocessing in an agreement with Saudi Arabia is not a legal requirement, it is a desired outcome.” In December 2017, Saudi Energy Minister also reportedly suggested that, while the Kingdom is determined to use nuclear energy strictly for peaceful purposes, it is seriously considering an eventual enrichment capability.
In December 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that formal talks will begin soon on a civilian nuclear pact, the preliminary talks with the Saudis on a nuclear deal had begun but that he could not provide details in public.
The talks of US-Saudi nuclear cooperation have resurfaced in the recent past. Keeping in view the Trump administration’s quest to establish US energy dominance and revive the US nuclear industry, many speculate that the US may ease certain constraints on the Saudi nuclear program.
These recent developments have generated both criticism and support within the US.
Supporters of relaxed constraints on US-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation claim, that if the US does not act fast, Russia and China may fill up the vacuum. In their view, China and Russia are already pursuing a policy of nuclear cooperation in host countries of strategic value. They believe China and Russia may also offer relaxed measures to the Saudis.
The supporters also believe that the global influence of US nuclear corporations is on a decline, if such a trend continues US may lose its influence in the global nuclear security order.
The supporters state that Saudi’s have in the past refused abiding by the Gold Standard and is unlikely for them to do so. The US should thus settle for a standard agreement thereby granting it with some access and monitoring of Saudi nuclear ambitions. It may use its veto power if necessary or encourage Saudi to sign additional protocol instead.
Tristan Volpe a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests that– ‘Washington would effectively gain a veto on whether Riyadh could develop its own gas centrifuge program or produce weapons-usable material using U.S.-supplied inputs. Moreover, the United States could threaten to cut off nuclear supplies if Saudi Arabia violates its nonproliferation commitments. Second, Iran may be deterred from expanding its enrichment program if it fears a reciprocal response from the Saudis. Under the standard nuclear cooperation agreement, Washington could grant Riyadh prior consent to pursue commercial fuel enrichment if Tehran decides to ramp up its own enrichment capabilities after JCPOA expires.’
The oppositions’ perspectives foresee exacerbated regional insecurities, propagation of an arms race and enhanced possibilities of nuclear proliferation.
An article published in the national interest sheds light on the various outcomes of US relaxing its nuclear safeguard mechanisms for KSA and raises some noteworthy points, —-“Administration officials have indicated that after they seal the proposed deal with the Saudis, they intend to cut other deals with Riyadh’s neighbors, starting with Jordan, which also has refused to forgo enriching or reprocessing. How will this story end? The Saudi deal could be the temblor that releases a proliferation tsunami: The Saudis’ development of a weapons option could be followed by the Turks or Egyptians. The reactors being built or proposed for the Middle East are projected to last forty to seventy years; while the governments in the region are not.”
Ariel Levite -a non-resident senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment- states that– “China and Russia both derive important benefits from the existing nuclear order, and they stand to gain more influence if their share of the world’s nuclear energy business increases. Neither wishes to see its nuclear technology misused or abused by a client state, resulting in a damaging accident, nuclear terrorism, or the spread of nuclear weapons.
For decades, Russia, in partnership with the United States, was a principal architect of the framework of institutions, treaties, and other arrangements that govern cooperation and trade in nuclear technology. China has become more invested in the existing nuclear order since its nuclear power program took flight in recent decades, though there are similar questions about China’s commitment to maintaining high standards as a condition of supply.
Realistically, contemporary nuclear politics do not favor new global initiatives or constructive policies on nuclear responsibility. But that does not mean that market forces should be allowed to drive down standards. Indeed, responsible nuclear states should aim to level up the playing field by upholding and, where possible, even strengthening practices that support global interests in safety, security, and non-proliferation. These states could develop an approach—winning support from their nuclear industries and ideally in collaboration with Beijing and Moscow.”
Robert Einhorn- a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution- discuses an integral aspect of Saudi calculations. In his analysis he states that ‘Saudi interest in pursuance of nuclear energy has a security dynamic and grave concern about the future acquisition of nuclear weapons by its arch-rival Iran and the conviction of many Saudis that they need to have the nuclear infrastructure in place to match the Iranians if necessary. The Saudis fear that the JCPOA(Iran deal) only delays and does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.’
In his view, Washington understands the Saudi concerns and he goes on to explore a possible outline of progression along similar lines of the JCPOA-, he states that “Washington still retains some leverage in 123 negotiations. Countries embarking on nuclear energy programs continue to see value in cooperating with the United States. Washington may conclude a 123 agreement that contains a legally binding commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing capabilities in Saudi Arabia during the agreement’s first 15 years. US may establish in the agreement a bilateral fuel cycle commission that, beginning in year 10, would jointly evaluate future Saudi reactor fuel requirements and consider alternative means of meeting those requirements, including indigenous enrichment.
Adopt a shorter duration than typical in US 123 agreements that would allow Saudi Arabia, without invoking the agreement’s withdrawal provision, to end the agreement and terminate its commitment to forgo fuel cycle capabilities if it believed the United States was exercising its consent rights in an unreasonably restrictive manner. However, it would allow Saudi Arabia to enrich or reprocess non-US material.”
Saudi Arabia aspires to economically diversify– its official stances also point out to the burgeoning- local and global- energy demands; embarking on civil nuclear energy project figure into its own vision. The US NSS explicitly discusses plans to attain energy and economic dominance; the President seems keen to revive the US nuclear industry. In the light of these objectives it is likely for US to conclude a mutually acceptable agreement with Saudi Arabia. However, beneath the official objectives lies the bitter reality of power rivalries and strategic competitions. Henry Sokolski and William Tobey have rightly used the phrase in their analysis “ Welcome to the unreal world of Washington realism”. The Trump administration seems to be taking of the garland of a ‘responsible super power’ on its own discretion. The Trump administration has already shown a disregard for environmental security, the recent US stance towards Russia raises concerns of a bitter arms race while highlighting US duplicity– the president remains adamant on pushing Iran back into the cold- a move that may further consolidate regional hostility.
Some believe that if the US does not move quickly with Saudi Arabia and lowers its safeguard standards, other powers may fill the vacuum. In the same sense, several important developments took place over the last year that helped other powers fill the vacuum of the ‘new responsible power’. Ariel Levite has rightly pointed out that ‘neither (China or Russia) wishes to see its nuclear technology misused or abused by a client state, resulting in a damaging accident, nuclear terrorism, or the spread of nuclear weapons.’ It is imperative for US to utilize this opportunity and work in conjunction with other powers to cater to genuine energy needs and uphold the pillars of a peaceful global security order.