On the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is building what it sees as the future of its energy production.
At the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the Saudi government is constructing a small nuclear research reactor. The Argentine-designed reactor will produce just tens of kilowatts of energy, a tiny fraction of what Saudi Arabia needs. But it's a sign of things to come — the kingdom's plans include gigawatts of energy from nuclear plants for both electricity and desalination.
Saudi Arabia's plans appear, on paper, to be entirely peaceful. But some arms control experts are concerned that its nuclear energy ambitions may also be part of its ongoing rivalry with Iran, which already possesses dual-use technology that could aid in the production of a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. and others such as South Korea and China are pushing ahead with plans to help Saudi Arabia's civilian nuclear program.
"The big, big question in the background," says Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear expert and professor at George Washington University, "is do we have enough controls in place that we can trust [Saudi Arabia]? Since they've been pretty clear about their intentions should things go bad with Iran."
Right now, Saudi Arabia generates its electricity with fossil fuels. But the government predicts that oil will be more valuable as an export. So about a decade ago, Saudi Arabia began pursuing an ambitious plan to start a nuclear energy program. Even after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, Squassoni says, Saudi Arabia kept at it.
"Most countries were walking away from nuclear, but they decided, 'Look, this is our long-term plan,'" she says.
Squassoni says she's a bit flummoxed by Saudi Arabia's continued interest in nuclear, given its high cost and the ease with which the country could adopt renewable energy sources like solar.
But the interest may make a lot more sense, she says, when considering Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran. Iran's nuclear program has had military dimensions in the past, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Today, Iran remains in possession of thousands of centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium. Depending on the level of enrichment, that uranium can be used either as fuel for nuclear reactors — or to make the cores of nuclear bombs.
Since 2015, the IAEA has closely monitored Iran's centrifuges as part of an international agreement that freezes Tehran's enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief. But Iran's nuclear capabilities clearly make Saudi Arabia nervous. Speaking last year on CBS' 60 Minutes, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned that if Iran ever got a nuke, Saudi Arabia would too. "Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," he said.
Saudi officials say the new research reactor under construction outside of Riyadh has nothing to do with nuclear bombs. In a statement to Bloomberg News last month, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources said the reactor's purpose was "strictly peaceful."
"The project is fully in compliance with the IAEA and international framework governing the nuclear energy and its peaceful use," the statement said.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to an NPR request for comment.
From a technical standpoint, this new reactor is too small and too low-power to be of any use in bomb-making, according to Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "This is not something that a country would engage upon for a weapons program," he says.
In fact, even large civilian nuclear power plants can't be used easily to make bombs. But Saudi Arabia has remained quiet on whether it wants its own centrifuges in addition to power plants. Such centrifuges might be legal, as they are used to enrich uranium for electricity production, but Stein says a Saudi decision to pursue that technology "would send alarm bells throughout the region."
"I think it would be interpreted as a move to hedge, and to consider building nuclear weapons down the line," Stein says.
The Trump administration has been looking at a nuclear cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia. Squassoni says such a deal should be carefully crafted. She hopes the U.S. will seek assurances that Saudi Arabia will not pursue civilian technologies that could allow it to make a bomb.
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