By Kelsey Davenport
In talks with the United States, Saudi Arabia is pushing for the right to produce nuclear fuel, a move that poses a greater proliferation risk given Riyadh’s threats to develop nuclear weapons.
Saudi officials have said little publicly about its negotiations on a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, but the country has announced ambitious plans to expand its nascent nuclear program by purchasing two large nuclear reactors and enriching domestically mined uranium.
As a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Saudi Arabia can legally enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but its interest in uranium enrichment is complicated by its threat to build nuclear weapons to match Iranian capabilities.
In a September interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, “we have to get one.” Saudi officials have made similar comments in the past. (See ACT, April 2018.)
The Biden administration’s willingness to consider a Saudi enrichment program is a departure from long-standing U.S. policy to limit the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing by pressing states to forgo developing these technologies in nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States, known as 123 agreements.
A nuclear cooperation agreement is necessary under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act before certain U.S. technologies and materials can be sold abroad. As part of the agreement, states must meet certain criteria designed to prevent proliferation.
The nuclear negotiations predate a larger effort to normalize Israeli-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia may be motivated to include the nuclear cooperation agreement in the broader rapprochement to gain Israel’s support for its nuclear ambitions.
Israel does not publicly admit to possessing nuclear weapons, but likely has an arsenal of about 80 warheads. The country is outspoken in opposition to other states in the region developing the capabilities to build nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned against the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, citing the agreement’s provisions allowing Iran to enrich uranium as a key concern.
The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Netanyahu directed Israeli officials to work with the United States on an agreement that includes Saudi enrichment, but such a deal still would face criticism in Israel. Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli Knesset and leader of the opposition to Netanyahu’s government, said in August that Saudi Arabia must not have “any level of enrichment.”
Although the effort to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations is on hold after Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel retaliated by striking and blockading the Gaza Strip, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to abandon its nuclear plans.
But even if an agreement is reached, it is unclear if it will garner sufficient support in the U.S. Congress. If the agreement meets nine nonproliferation criteria set out in the Atomic Energy Act, it will enter into effect unless both houses of Congress pass a resolution of disapproval within 90 days.
If the agreement does not meet the nonproliferation criteria, Congress must pass a resolution of approval for it to enter into effect.
The nine nonproliferation criteria include a guarantee that any nuclear materials and equipment are not used for weapons development or other military purposes and that the recipient state has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Given Saudi Arabia’s public threats to develop nuclear weapons, it may be challenging for the Biden administration to gain support for any agreement that allows uranium enrichment, particularly if the kingdom does not have an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement in place. Additional protocols to safeguards agreements were developed in the 1990s when it became clear from the cases of Iraq and North Korea that a comprehensive safeguard agreement alone was insufficient to prevent proliferation. An additional protocol gives the IAEA more access and information about a country’s nuclear activities.
Sixteen Democrats in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to Biden saying that the United States should “seriously consider” whether it is in its best interest to support a Saudi nuclear program. The Oct. 4 letter said that if the United States moves forward on a nuclear cooperation agreement, it should meet the “gold standard.”
The gold standard refers to a nuclear cooperation agreement that requires the receiving country to forgo enrichment and reprocessing and adhere to the additional protocol. The U.S. agreement with the United Arab Emirates meets the gold standard.
Congressional opposition to Saudi enrichment predates the current nuclear negotiations. During the Trump administration, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that the United States “should suspend all talks” on a nuclear cooperation agreement “until the Saudi government agrees to the ‘gold standard’ requirements.” His statement followed the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government in October 2018.
Rubio and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would require any nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia to meet the gold standard and secure an affirmative vote of approval from Congress. (See ACT, December 2018.)
The legislation did not become law, but it demonstrates the bipartisan opposition that Biden likely will face if he attempts to move forward on an agreement that does not meet the gold standard.
Saudi statements suggest that the country will not accept an agreement that bans uranium enrichment, but it is unclear if it would accept the more intrusive additional protocol to its safeguards agreement.
Saudi Arabia only announced in September during the annual IAEA General Conference that it would negotiate a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the agency. For years, the IAEA had been urging Saudi Arabia to update its safeguards.
Until Saudi Arabia adopts its safeguards agreement, IAEA monitoring is based on an outdated safeguards model, called the small quantities protocol, designed for states with little or no nuclear materials. That protocol was designed in the 1970s, but after determining it was insufficient, the IAEA revised it in 2005 to give the agency more tools for conducting safeguards. Saudi Arabia never adopted the revised text.
Although Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it will adopt a comprehensive safeguards agreement is a necessary step toward introducing nuclear materials, the country’s unwillingness to update its safeguards promptly in response to agency requests raises concerns.
In September 2020, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Saudi Arabia’s small quantities protocol is simply “not adequate.”
Saudi Arabia also forged ahead with constructing a research reactor under the outdated safeguards arrangement, a move that makes it more difficult for the IAEA to verify the reactor design and develop a safeguards approach. Standard practice is to allow the agency to inspect a reactor as it is being built.
The Biden administration has other options to reduce the risk of Riyadh using a civil nuclear program for weapons purposes besides insisting on the gold standard or forging an agreement allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium.
It could attempt to bypass the question of Saudi enrichment by pursuing a black box approach, by which the United States would construct and operate a uranium-enrichment facility on Saudi soil. But it remains unclear how the United States would respond to any Saudi attempts to nationalize the facility or prevent the kingdom from acquiring knowledge about enrichment even if the facility was operated by U.S. personnel.
Furthermore, it may be challenging for the United States to implement such a proposal. The only U.S.-based and -operated enrichment facility, Centrus, just began operations in October. The only other commercial enrichment facility in the United States is operated by Urenco, a European-based enrichment consortium.
Another option would be to delay determining whether Saudi Arabia will be allowed to enrich uranium. The United States pursued a similar approach in its nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea, when Seoul sought permission to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
Delaying the decision would allow the United States and Saudi Arabia to study the feasibility and proliferation implications and consider alternative arrangements, such as U.S. support for a fuel fabrication facility in Saudi Arabia. This would allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear fuel with less proliferation risk because it would not include uranium-enrichment technology on Saudi soil.
A delay would also give Saudi Arabia time to determine if mining its uranium deposits is a viable option.
In January 2023, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said that the country intends to “utilize its national uranium resources” and pursue “the entire nuclear fuel cycle,” including “the production of yellowcake, low-enriched uranium and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and of course for export.” (See ACT, March 2023.)
But a joint publication by the IAEA and the Nuclear Energy Agency, a multilateral entity run out of the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development in Paris, in 2023 assessed that mining Saudi Arabia’s uranium deposits would be “severely uneconomic.”
Given Saudi Arabia’s threats to develop nuclear weapons, it may be challenging for the country to purchase uranium ore for enrichment.