Selling nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia and allowing them to build massive uranium-enrichment facilities and plants to extract plutonium is a stupendously dumb idea. So, it is perhaps fitting that the Trump administration is sending Rick Perry to discuss all this with the Saudis.
Of all the recent secretaries of energy, Perry knows the least about nuclear energy, nonproliferation policy, and the history of the region. He actually fits in well with an administration notoriously short on expertise. Not only have very few of the appointees appeared to know much about the regions or issue areas they now oversee, but the Department of State remains a ghost ship, with only one-third of the 150 presidentially appointed positions filled.
This puts the United States at a decided disadvantage as Secretary Perry sits down in London to discuss with Saudi officials their plan to build 16 nuclear reactors. They want to award major contracts soon, and US companies are drooling at the prospect of selling their nuclear wares to one of the few countries that wants to build more reactors.
Here’s the catch. Saudi Arabia also wants to build plants to make the fuel to put in these reactors. They also want plants to reprocess the fuel when it is taken out of the reactors. The problem is that the same centrifuges that can spin uranium gas to enrich it to levels necessary for fuel can also spin that gas to levels necessary for nuclear weapons. With the same facilities, the same machines, and a slightly different configuration, you can go from a fuel plant to a bomb factory in weeks.
Similarly, the same plants that break the spent fuel down into component elements for waste storage and reuse can also extract the plutonium from the used fuel rods. Unlike uranium, plutonium does not exist in nature. It is produced in the fission reactions that generate the energy (heat) used to turn water into the steam that spins the turbines that produce electricity. Extracting the plutonium could give Saudi Arabia a second pathway to a bomb. The Hiroshima bomb was made of uranium; the Nagasaki bomb, plutonium.
Most nations that have reactors buy their fuel from the handful of countries that make it, such as Russia or the European Union. Uranium enrichment is very expensive. It does not make economic sense to manufacture your own fuel unless you have 20 or more reactors. Saudi Arabia doesn’t yet have one, but it wants an enrichment facility.
Are Saudi motives suspicious? You betcha. Studies such as one done by the AUB Policy Institute in Beirut, Lebanon in October 2016 show that it would be far cheaper for all Middle East nations, including Saudi Arabia, to buy their fuel from “the oversupplied enrichment market” where prices have been steadily falling, “then seeking to establish their own enrichment programs.” The authors of this study propose establishing a multinational enrichment facility in the Middle East, similar to the multinational enrichment system in the EU. No one nation controls such faculties, so no one nation can quickly turn them into bomb plants.
Saudi motives are just as suspicious as Iran’s were when it announced nearly identical plans in the early 2000s. Many nuclear policy experts, including this author, opposed any enrichment or reprocessing facilities in Iran for precisely these reasons.
It would have been considerably wiser to negotiate with Iran in 2003 when it had only a few dozen centrifuges, or in 2005 when it had a few hundred, or in 2009 when it had several thousand. A “zero option” might have been possible at those moments. But by the time the United States got serious about talks in 2013, Iran had 20,000 operating centrifuges and a deal to get rid of them all was beyond reach. The vast majority of global nuclear experts greeted the Iran nuclear accord with relief, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) effectively blocked Iran’s pathways to a bomb for at least 15 years—indeed, forever if it can be supplemented with additional agreements.
This is why it would be foolish to give Saudi Arabia these same pathways now. “Giving Riyadh a pass on tight nuclear nonproliferation rules would be playing with fire,” argue Victor Galinsky and Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Education Center in a recent Foreign Policy article. “Saudi Arabia is neither a stable state nor a benign actor in the Middle East that deserves U.S. coddling…the truth is that the Saudis have been the main purveyors of the fundamentalist religious doctrines that have spread the seeds of terrorism throughout the Arab world.” Given that Saudi Arabia is now engaged with Iran in a struggle for regional dominance, Riyadh’s “resistance to restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction amounts to a public declaration that the kingdom wants to keep a nuclear weapons option open,” they warn.
As The Economist points out, “Granting the Saudis such a deal could prompt other countries such as the UAE, to ask for similar terms.” The UAE is also building a reactor (the first in the Arab world) but agreed several years ago to foreswear any enrichment or reprocessing plants. The Obama administration declared this the “gold standard” for all new nuclear sales deals. Giving in to the Saudis now could trigger a UAE reconsideration and “undermine global efforts at non-proliferation,” says The Economist. And it could blow apart the Iran Deal: “Critics of the Iran deal fear that a Saudi enrichment programme would compromise their effort to impose tighter restrictions on Iran.” Does anyone seriously think that Iran would agree to extend the restrictions on its program if Saudi Arabia were operating potential bomb factories next door?
It is not, after all, as if Saudi Arabia were asking for the same deal the nations of the world struck with Iran, though the issue is often framed this way. Former Acting Undersecretary of State Tom Countryman tweeted, “I offered the Saudis the same deal that Iran got in the JCPOA: toleration of enrichment, no nuclear trade with the US, permanent pariah status, and inspectors in their shorts from now to doomsday. For some reason, they only focused on the first bit.”
The Iran deal, with all its unprecedented restrictions, is not what the Saudis want. They want complete freedom to build what they want and use it how they want, reserving all options. Lenin famously said, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” The Saudis are asking for the nuclear rope.
Trump’s Proliferation Position
Still, the Trump administration may cave to Saudi demands. Many in the administration, including the president, don’t think it would be so bad if Saudi Arabia got the bomb. It is not the spread of nuclear weapons they worry about; it is the spread of nuclear weapons to “bad guys.” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a March 2016 interview that it didn’t matter if Saudi Arabia got nuclear weapons because “it was going to happen anyway.” Cooper asked him, “So if you said, Japan, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?”
“Can I be honest with you?” asks Trump, “It’s going to happen anyway. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them.” And then he cuts to the chase: “Now, wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”
Forget the corrupt business deals that may bind Saudi Arabia to the Trump administration. Forget the sword dances and the fawning flattery and the millions of Saudi dollars flooding American think tanks and university centers. Forget the complete lack of understanding of the Middle East.
All of that certainly influences the public debate and Trump administration attitudes. But in the end, it may just come down to the president of the United States going against everything his predecessors from Truman to Obama believed, and all their work to stop any nation from getting these weapons, including U.S. allies. It may come down to Donald Trump thinking it is perfectly fine to give Saudi Arabia the atomic bomb.