By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
Negotiations on an agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia for cooperation on “peaceful” nuclear technology have moved slowly for years, in large part because Saudi officials have insisted the nation retain an option to enrich uranium. They say this material will be used as fuel for the nuclear reactors Saudi Arabia plans to build, but uranium enrichment is one of two key technologies that open the door to manufacturing nuclear weapons, the other being reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium.
Saudi Arabia insists it will not accept the so-called gold standard, a promise to refrain from enriching or reprocessing, to which neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed in its bilateral agreement for civil nuclear cooperation with the United States.
Saudi Arabia and its Washington supporters have cast the gold standard as an extreme, impractical, and unnecessary proposal. So strong was Saudi opposition that many in the nonproliferation community came to view the gold standard as an overly ambitious goal. In the last two years, however, crass Saudi behavior has begun to change minds. An official Saudi expression of interest in acquiring nuclear weapons if Iran follows that path; the brazen killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a commentator for The Washington Post; and the humanitarian costs of indiscriminate Saudi bombing of Yemen have all contributed to former gold-standard opponents believing it is appropriate not just for Riyadh but across the board.
This does not mean that the White House will strike a deal with the gold standard or that Congress will have the strength to insist on it, but now, opponents will have some explaining to do.
In the most recent chapter of this saga, Saudi Arabia’s new energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the first royal family member to hold the job, explicitly told an energy conference in Dubai in September that the kingdom plans a nuclear program that includes uranium enrichment. Everyone knows what this means. As the subhead of a September 9 Al Jazeera story says, “It opens up [the] possibility of military use of uranium.”1
Abdulaziz knows full well the concern his remarks will produce in Congress, where everyone remembers the remark of his half-brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that Saudi Arabia intends to match Iran in nuclear technology and if it comes to that, to match it bomb for bomb, and the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s ghastly murder. None of this seems to have inhibited Saudi officials in their belief that all that matters is their connection with the Trump White House.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced his desire to meet the prince to discuss Saudi nuclear plans and a U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement, also known as a 123 agreement, for the section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act that requires such agreements before the United States can provide civilian nuclear support to foreign nations. A September 4 letter to Saudi Arabia set out the baseline for any U.S.-Saudi agreement as requiring an additional protocol to the safeguards agreement Saudi Arabia has with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such a protocol empowers the agency to conduct more intrusive oversight of a nation’s nuclear activities and is something Saudi Arabia should have signed long ago, as most countries have. The letter also demanded that “the terms of the 123 Agreement must contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement.”2 This stipulation may cover U.S.-origin nuclear materials and technology only, but the language sounds like a demand that the kingdom forgo enrichment and reprocessing of any material for the duration of any nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.
Past Avoidance of the Gold Standard
If so, this is real news. Historically, the United States has found the desire to increase nuclear sales to be more important than pursuing strict nonproliferation measures. The U.S. nuclear industry has argued that imposing the gold standard would make it impossible for it to compete with its nuclear supplier bugaboos, Russia and China. One collection after another of “geostrategic” thinkers has asserted that increasing U.S. nuclear exports was vital for national security, including for spreading the nonproliferation gospel, and that U.S. nuclear salesmen could not succeed if hobbled by unpopular nonproliferation conditions.3
The problems did not start with the Trump administration. In 2009 the Obama administration had a brief success in getting the UAE, then planning a four-unit nuclear power project, to sign a gold standard agreement, as did Taiwan later. Other potential customers, however, balked, and the Obama administration stopped insisting on the gold standard.
Rose Gottemoeller, the Obama administration’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, said she disliked the term “gold standard” because it implied other arrangements were less protective. They are. In 2013 she told the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s trade association, that “nuclear exports are a key strategic asset.” She quoted wildly optimistic estimates from international nuclear organizations of nuclear business as more than $500 billion over the next 10 years “with the potential to generate more than $100 billion in U.S. exports and thousands of new jobs.” She assured the industry group that the Obama administration created a “Team USA” and a new position, director of nuclear energy policy, to help sell nuclear technology abroad. It was all music to their ears.4
With regard to the gold standard, U.S. Department of State officials always preferred case-by-case negotiation of nuclear agreements so they could balance regional interests with global ones such as nonproliferation. Regional bureaus almost invariably won out. Nonproliferation conditions were often replaced by what the department liked to call their “functional equivalents,” which they hardly ever were.
Then came the Trump administration and its exceptional chumminess with Saudi Arabia, which described plans to build 16 nuclear power plants. Although unlikely to happen, the Saudi plan dangled the possibility of a $100 billion sale, attracting industry moths to flame, such as IP3 International, a firm heavy with retired generals and admirals, none of whom apparently had any nuclear background. What they did have was powerful White House connections, and IP3 is now pushing for a U.S. nuclear comeback by way of nuclear exports to the Middle East, expanding the goal beyond Saudi Arabia to a U.S. nuclear “Marshall Plan” for the entire region.
With these mouthwatering prospects, the Trump White House was ready to relax nonproliferation standards and especially ready to give Saudi officials what they wanted in a nuclear export agreement, specifically, no prohibition on Saudi uranium enrichment. Trump officials repeated the old arguments that it was better to be in the nuclear trade to have a say in the international rules and, besides, how could you ignore the possibility of billions in sales to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East generally. The fix appeared to be in, but then three things happened.
Trump Administration Changes Strategy
First, during an April 2018 U.S. visit, the Saudi crown prince, the nation’s effective ruler, told a CBS interviewer emphatically that if rival Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would get one too and quickly: “Saudi Arabia 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.”5 This policy put Saudi interest in “peaceful” uranium enrichment in a rather different light. No party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) had ever spoken this way, and the prince’s impetuous comments suggested the possibility that matching Iran on nuclear weapons might mean getting there first.
That was apparently too much even for the Trump administration and for many in Congress. In May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Saudi officials “have said they want a peaceful nuclear energy program, and we have told them we want a gold-standard section 123 Agreement from them, which would not permit them to enrich. That is simply all I’ve asked of Iran, as well.”6 The mention of Iran reflects the realization that it is inconsistent to demand Tehran refrain from enriching while giving the green light to Saudi Arabia at the same time. In a June hearing of the House Science Committee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) pressed Perry on conditions on exports to Saudi Arabia. Perry testified they would include acceptance of enhanced IAEA inspection under an additional protocol. He also promised to share with the committee “810” authorizations, which cover intangible nuclear technology transfers. The Energy Department had kept several such authorizations for transfers to Saudi Arabia from Congress in violation of the law. Perry also said it was the U.S. position that South Korean reactor technology has a sufficient U.S. component that Saudi Arabia would need a U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement to receive Korean reactors.7
Concern over Saudi Arabia escalated in October 2018 when the crown prince was deeply implicated in the Khashoggi murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The murder and subsequent brazen official Saudi lying by their ambassador in Washington, Khalid bin Salman; Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir; and the crown prince himself made clear that Saudi Arabia could not follow international rules reliably or be trusted with nuclear technology.
The third development relates to Israel, which has aligned more closely with Saudi Arabia as part of a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi phalanx to reduce Iran’s influence. After hearing the crown prince’s expression of nuclear interest, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told President Donald Trump in March 2019 that Israel wanted Saudi Arabia to forswear enrichment and reprocessing, that is, agree to the gold standard: “If you do go ahead [with a U.S.-Saudi agreement], at least don’t let Riyadh enrich its own uranium.”8
These new developments appear to have convinced key U.S. nuclear export promoters that they could no longer barrel their way past the gold standard. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and retired Army General Jack Keane proposed in July 2019 that all countries in the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, should abide by the gold standard and, if they do, they should all be equally eligible for nuclear power plants.
“The U.S. could begin supplying fuel rods for nuclear reactors throughout the Arab world. Dozens of nations already operate under similar nuclear frameworks,” they wrote. “Under this proposal, Iran could become a legitimate nuclear-power nation with all the benefits of following international rules. But under no circumstances would it be permitted to enrich nuclear material for the purpose of building a weapon.”9
Their generosity is tempered by their expectation that Iran will refuse the offer, and it does not encompass a gold standard requirement for Israel. Graham was quoted in August saying, “I’m not talking about Israel. They’re in their own sort of…category.”10 That is, they already have bombs. Even with these qualifications, it is an extraordinary proposal considering who it is making it.
No senator has been more on board with the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi front to crush Iran than Graham, and no firm has argued more vigorously against tough nonproliferation requirements, most especially for Saudi Arabia, than IP3, of which Keane is a director. Not only that, but Graham co-sponsored a bill with a Democratic senator to prohibit the Export-Import Bank from financing nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia unless it complies with the gold standard.11
There is undoubtedly another element in this shift by the exporters: the realization that the United States no longer has the capacity for major nuclear exports. The last major nuclear vendor, Westinghouse, had Japanese owners for years. It recently went through bankruptcy and is now a Canadian company and a shadow of its former self. The main export of power reactors to Saudi Arabia will likely come from South Korea, which is building the four units for the UAE. Significantly, IP3, which styles itself as an “integrator” of nuclear projects, is now looking to piggyback on a South Korean-Saudi deal. Broad congressional support for U.S. participation in expanding nuclear energy use in the Middle East is no longer possible without agreements that incorporate the gold standard.
Why Nuclear in Saudi Arabia?
This leaves the question whether it makes sense to export any power reactors to the Middle East, unsettled as it is, and to Saudi Arabia in particular. The technology will always be tempting to would-be bombmakers. Even the gold standard is just a promise after all. Can a murderous medieval dictatorship such as Saudi Arabia be trusted to keep such a promise? How would the Washington respond if Riyadh reneged? The lack of constructive answers suggests that it is best to discourage all nuclear technology transfers to the region and the United States should not participate in exports.
The region also has a history of attacks on nuclear facilities. The recent missile attack against the kingdom’s massive refineries at Abqaiq suggests additional vulnerabilities and risks. Nuclear power reactors are generally designed to cope with aircraft crashes, but accurate missiles with sizeable warheads are another matter.
Finally, nuclear technology does not make economic sense in view of the availability of sunshine and natural gas. The UAE has announced that it will now concentrate on renewable energy projects, whose costs have decreased dramatically while nuclear costs have roughly doubled since the UAE bought its nuclear power plants. Plus, Abu Dhabi has ready access to enormous supplies of natural gas. For these reasons, the UAE has no plans to build any additional reactors.
Nevertheless, if there are to be nuclear exports to the Middle East, a gold standard provides welcome protection, and it should be a standard provision of nuclear cooperation agreements. Just two years ago, no one in Washington would have bet the gold standard for civilian nuclear energy cooperation would survive as a serious proposal, but now its value is broadly understood, and the burden of proof lies with those who oppose it.
3. See, e.g., Energies Futures Initiative, “The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler,” August 2017, https://energyfuturesinitiative.org/s/EFI-nuclear-paper-17-Aug-2017.pdf; CSIS Commission on Nuclear Energy Policy in the United States, “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2013, http://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/130614_RestoringUSLeadershipNuclearEnergy_WEB.pdf.
4. Rose Gottemoeller, “Geopolitics and Nuclear Energy: The View From the State Department” (remarks before the Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington DC, May 15, 2013), https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/us/209768.htm.
5. “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Says His Country Could Develop Nuclear Weapons,” 60 Minutes, March 15, 2018, https://www.cbs.com/shows/cbs_evening_news/video/aeuk1o7dQ9giEQdPIqjewrAhU7wjA_8f/saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-says-his-country-could-develop-nuclear-weapons/.
10. Erin Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng, “Team Trump Turns to Lindsey Graham to Cut an Iran Deal,” The Daily Beast, August 1, 2019, https://www.thedailybeast.com/team-trump-turns-to-lindsey-graham-to-cut-an-iran-deal.
Victor Gilinsky is program advisor for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Arlington, Virginia. He served on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1975 to 1984. Henry Sokolski is executive director of NPEC, served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1989 to 1993, and is the author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2019).