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Riyadh adds safety valve to US and China nuclear quest

  • Saudi Arabia will allow inspections of facilities
  • China still in running to build plant
  • Specialists say safeguards must go further

Saudi Arabia is to allow inspections of future nuclear facilities, in an effort to persuade Washington to allow transfer of US reactor technology.

The decision by Riyadh will appease Washington, but the Saudis are still courting China as a possible alternative option if US fears of nuclear proliferation prevent a deal. 

The Saudi government presented a written document to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month, stating it would sign on to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, as it assesses contenders to build its first nuclear energy plant. 

The kingdom has focused its attention on the US firm Centrus Energy, which is at the forefront of next generation reactor technology. Its high-assay, low-enriched uranium system, known as Haleu, uses smaller, longer-lasting reactor cores seen as more fuel efficient. 

Daniel Poneman, Centrus CEO, was part of a Biden administration delegation that came close to a deal during a visit to Riyadh last year but progress was halted by a lack of assurances on enrichment, reprocessing of spent fuel and proliferation.  

Nuclear specialists say Saudi Arabia needs to go further and sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol (AP) that allows snap inspections. 

“While the AP is optional, realistically it’s the international standard for safeguards— over 140 countries have an AP in place,” said Eric Brewer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an independent US-based watchdog. 

Israel adds pressure

Now Israel is pressuring the US over the issue. Ministers are saying publicly that they do not want Saudi Arabia to have a nuclear programme. 

According to Simon Henderson of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Saudi desire to do its own enrichment is “suspicious to anyone with any knowledge of proliferation” – not least given the cheaper costs of buying the material from abroad. 

The neighbouring UAE followed that path. It bypassed US companies and avoided the enrichment rabbit hole by awarding the contract for its Barakah plant in Abu Dhabi to a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corporation, which has developed its own small reactor technology, and obtains enriched uranium on the international market.

While Saudi Arabia dilly-dallies, the UAE plant has been operational since 2020 and is touted by the UAE as a key factor in meeting its net-zero goals. 

Saudi officials have acknowledged that state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is in the running for building a plant at Duwaiheen on the Gulf coast between Qatar and the UAE. Other names are thought to be Korea Electric Power Corporation and Russia’s Rosatom. 

In a recent article, Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi said China would step up on a range of issues, including the nuclear programme, if Washington reneged on its support for the kingdom. 

“China also stands ready to supply [us] with nuclear technology and provide support for a civilian Saudi nuclear industry with fewer constraints than America wants to impose,” he wrote. 

Keeping China warm

Beijing and Riyadh have drawn closer over the past year following President Xi Jinping’s visit in late 2022, based on Saudi Arabia’s status as China’s top oil supplier. 

Locked in intense geopolitical competition with China, Washington certainly wants to keep Saudi Arabia on side, giving Saudi hopes that a deal can still be struck with Centrus. 

But as the game of brinkmanship intensifies, Saudi leaders are pushing the envelope further.  

In a recent interview with Fox TV, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he might swap US for Chinese arms suppliers if not offered a defence pact guaranteeing Saudi security. 

He also reiterated the position that Saudi Arabia will strive to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran becomes a nuclear power.

“If they get one we have to get one. For security reasons, for balancing power in the Middle East – but we don’t want to see that,” he said. 

While these comments will alarm Washington, US leaders know that Saudi Arabia has failed so far to find significant amounts of uranium in explorations carried out with CNNC help. 

Brewer said signing the AP would be key to alleviating US concerns. 

“If Riyadh wants to move forward with nuclear energy, it should be trying to reduce suspicions about nuclear proliferation rather than raising them,” he said. “There are viable options available to do so, but Saudi needs to be ready to step up its commitments.” 

But even if a deal is reached, Riyadh could still use CNNC for future plants, which would reopen proliferation concerns and put further strain on the US relationship, Henderson said. 

“Saudi Arabia will retain the Chinese option even if the US allows an enrichment plant. The test is as much for [Mohammed bin Salman] as it is for Washington,” he said. 

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