Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia nuclear program

Let the Race Begin: Nuclear Saudi Arabia v. Iran

image from https://www.energy.gov.sa/ar/snaep/Pages/ov.aspx

In the desert 220km (137 miles) from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a South Korean firm is close to finishing the Arab world’s first operational nuclear-power reactor. The project started ten years ago in Washington, where the Emiratis negotiated a “123 agreement”. Such deals, named after a clause in America’s export-control laws, impose tough safeguards in return for American nuclear technology. When the UAE signed one in 2009, it also pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Both can be used to make nuclear weapons. Arms-control wonks called it the gold standard of 123 deals.

Saudi Arabia… has its own ambitious nuclear plans: 16 reactors, at a cost of up to $80bn. But, unlike the UAE, it wants to do its own enrichment. Iran, its regional rival, is already a step ahead. The most controversial provision of the nuclear deal it signed with world powers in 2015 allows it to enrich uranium. Iran did agree to mothball most of the centrifuges used for enrichment, and to process the stuff only to a level far below what is required for a bomb. Still, it kept the technology. The Saudis want to have it, too… Indeed, critics of the Iran deal fear that a Saudi enrichment programme would compromise their effort to impose tighter restrictions on Iran. But Donald Trump, America’s president, is less concerned. He has close ties with the Saudis. He has also pledged to revitalise America’s ailing nuclear industry. Among the five firms bidding for the Saudi project is Westinghouse, an American company that filed for bankruptcy last year. It would not be able to join the project without a 123 agreement…One is Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company, which is pursuing a frenetic sort of nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. In December it signed a $21.3bn contract to build Egypt’s first power reactor. Jordan inked a $10bn deal with the Russians in 2015. Despite their differences, particularly over Syria, the Saudis are keen to have closer ties with the region’s resurgent power [Russia]. King Salman spent four days in Moscow in October 2017, the first such visit by a Saudi ruler.

Excerpt from Nuclear Power in the Middle East: An Unenriching debate, Economist,  Feb. 10, 2018

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Nuclear Embrace: the Saudi Arabia-Russia Deal

The the King of Saudi Arabia, and henceforth the relations witnessed remarkable growth…

Putin and Prince Muhammad Bin Salman discussed the latest developments in the region and reviewed the efforts being exerted to resolve major crises affecting the region….Al-Jubeir added that many agreements were signed on energy, space research and other fields…

According to sources, Russia will assist the Kingdom with technology and expertise in building nuclear reactors.The Kingdom has an ambitious plan to build around 16 nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes and generation of electricity.Since several months, the Russian nuclear experts were working along with K.A CARE officials to finalize the agreement.

Gen. Abdurahman Al-Binayan, chief of the Saudi General Staff, and Alexander Fomin, director of the Russian Federal Service for Military–Technical Cooperation, signed the agreement for cooperation in various military fields.  Saudi Ambassador to Russia Abdulrahman Al-Rassi said Moscow has an “important” role in implementing a Security Council resolution on Yemen.

Rassi said there was an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia on maintaining legitimacy of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, and that Moscow was key in implementing the resolution which demands that the Iran-backed Houthi militias withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict and relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions.

Excerpts  Russia -Saudi Arabia ties get a boost, Saudi Gazette, June  20, 2015

Frenemies with Nuclear Benefits: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Shaheen III-missile range, Pakistan missile tested in March 2015

The Pakistani Parliament, even while stating its commitment to protect the territory of Saudi Arabia, recently adopted a resolution not to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen….The foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, blasted the decision as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected,” accusing Pakistan of advancing Iran’s interests rather than those of its own Persian Gulf allies. Pakistan was choosing neutrality in an “existential confrontation,” he said, and it would pay the price… Millions of Pakistanis work in the Persian Gulf, sending back vast remittances. Many of Pakistan’s politicians and generals have major investments in the region, and some have a deep affinity for Wahhabism. Rich Arabs in Pakistan are treated like royalty, allowed to flout hunting and environmental protection laws… [S]ome backpedaling has begun. The Pakistani military agreed to commit naval vessels to help enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis. This, however, will not undo the damage: The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s ties with its Arab benefactors, even if it turns out to be temporary, is unprecedented.

For Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Parliament’s surprising assertion of independence was especially worrisome because it came on the heels of the American-backed preliminary nuclear deal with Iran…This development undermines Saudi Arabia’s longstanding nuclear strategy. In the 1970s, partly to extend its influence, partly in the name of Muslim solidarity, it began bankrolling Pakistan’s nuclear program. In gratitude, the Pakistani government renamed the city of Lyallpur as Faisalabad, after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. When Pakistan seemed to dither after India tested five nuclear bombs in May 1998, the Saudi government pledged to give it 50,000 barrels of oil a day for free. Pakistan soon tested six of its own bombs. Later, the Saudi defense minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the secret nuclear and missile facilities at the Kahuta complex near Islamabad… In exchange for its largesse, Saudi Arabia has received Pakistani military assistance in the form of soldiers, expertise and ballistic missiles.

The Saudi government has taken the quid pro quo to imply certain nuclear benefits as well, including, if need be, the delivery at short notice of some of the nuclear weapons it has helped pay for. Some Pakistani warheads are said to have been earmarked for that purpose and reportedly are stocked at the Minhas air force base in Kamra, near Islamabad. (Pakistan, which has as many as 120 nuclear warheads, denies this..)

The Saudis have also come to expect that they fall under the nuclear protection of Pakistan, much like, say, Japan is covered by the United States’s nuclear umbrella. Pakistan’s nuclear forces were developed to target India, but they can strike farther, as was recently demonstrated by the successful test launch of the Shaheen-3 missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with South Korea “to assess the potential” for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It plans to build 16 nuclear-power reactors over the next 20 years, with the first reactor expected to be on line in 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association. It insists on having a full civilian fuel cycle, leaving open the possibility of reprocessing weapon-grade plutonium from nuclear waste.

Excerpts, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan, the Saudis’ Indispensable Nuclear Partnership, NY Times, Apr. 21, 2015

Just in Time: the Nuclear Weapons of Saudi Arabia

Pakistani missiles at ideas 2008 defense exhibition in Pakistan. Image from wikipedia

The visit by the chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in Feb. 2015 will likely prompt concern in Washington and other major capitals that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have reconfirmed an arrangement whereby Pakistan, if asked, will supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear warheads.  The main meeting on Gen. Rashid Mahmoud’s itinerary was with King Salman — the topics discussed were reported as “deep relations between the two countries and … a number of issues of common interest.”…For decades, Riyadh has been judged a supporter of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, providing financing in return for a widely assumed understanding that, if needed, Islamabad will transfer technology or even warheads…

Although Pakistani nuclear technology also helped Iran’s program, the relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh has been much more obvious.  In 1999, a year after Pakistan tested two nuclear weapons, then Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan visited the unsafeguarded uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta outside Islamabad — prompting a US diplomatic protest.

Excerpts from SIMON HENDERSON, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may have just renewed a secret nuclear weapons pact. Business Insider, Feb. 4, 2014

The Love for Nuclear Energy: Saudi Arabia

Iran and Saudi Arabia on map. Image from wikipedia

…[T]e government of Saudi Arabia is feeling anxiety over the evident progress in nuclear talks between the United States and Iran. Indeed, as Riyadh’s regional rival moves closer to receiving international recognition for its nuclear program, the kingdom’s own nuclear aspirations seem to have stalled completely: a proposed U.S.-Saudi nuclear agreement has been at a standstill for six years. And the stalled talks are only one of several issues that have hurt the relationship between Riyadh and Washington in recent years.

The U.S.-Saudi nuclear talks were initiated in 2008, when then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation. At the time, many observers expected that the two countries were forging a new pillar for their 80-year-long strategic partnership. Indeed, Saudi Arabia soon announced its intention to build 16 nuclear power plants (at an estimated cost of $112 billion), which would have made it the world’s largest civilian nuclear program and generated tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for the kingdom’s growing population. Riyadh has justified its nuclear ambitions by pointing to the country’s dependence on oil and gas exports, which constitute 80 percent of national revenue; if Saudi Arabia could meet its own growing energy demands through nuclear energy, it wouldn’t have to curtail its sale of oil on the international market.

But before Saudi Arabia enjoys its first watt of nuclear energy, it needs to find partners who are willing to help build its nuclear infrastructure—and at the moment, the United States doesn’t seem willing to play that role. Washington has said that it would first need to reach an agreement with Riyadh on adherence to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a U.S. law that regulates nuclear commerce—and those efforts have stalled over the question of whether Saudi Arabia would be subject to the so-called Gold Standard provision that would proscribe Riyadh from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium.

Riyadh is unsurprisingly incensed at any suggestion that it wouldn’t be accorded the same right to enrich uranium that the United States effectively granted to Iran under the interim agreement between those two countries. Sources familiar with the negotiations say that Riyadh has argued that the Gold Standard represents an unacceptable infringement on its national sovereignty, emphasizing that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, stipulates that countries have a right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

The White House has so far seemed reluctant to offer any compromise….Complicating matters is the fact that Israel is likely to oppose any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia that doesn’t adhere to the Gold Standard and will pressure its allies in Washington to do the same. (Israel tacitly approved the 2009 nuclear deal between the United States and the UAE, which was compliant with the Gold Standard.)

Saudi Arabia, should it fail to reach an understanding with Washington, might instead choose to partner with either France or Russia to develop its nuclear program. Last January, during a state visit by French President François Hollande to Riyadh, the French company Areva, the world’s largest nuclear firm, signed a Me moandums of Understanding with five Saudi companies that aim to develop the industrial and technical skills of local companies. Similarly, the CEO of Russia’s Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, announced in July that Russia and Saudi Arabia expect to sign an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation later this year. If Saudi Arabia follows through on these agreements, it would be to the detriment of U.S. companies—and, perhaps, the broader U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership.

At present, a compromise between Saudi Arabia and the United States seems unlikely…. [But] One promising precedent is the U.S.-Vietnam nuclear agreement of 2014, which allowed Hanoi to obtain any nuclear reactor fuel that it needs for its reactors from the international market, rather than produce the material itself—a model that was dubbed the Silver Standard. This arrangement would likely be acceptable to Riyadh, as it is consistent with the agreement that Rice and Faisal signed in 2008. It’s unclear, however, whether it would be acceptable to Congress. U.S. politicians who claim to fear “Saudi nukes”—or the prospect that Riyadh’s nuclear program could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists—are unlikely to accept anything short of the Gold Standard.

Excerpt, By Sigurd Neubauer,Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Envy, Foreign Affairs, Washington Should Help Riyadh Keep Up With Tehran

Nuclear Energy in the Gulf: a response to Iran

IAEA's  Amano wiht UAE Hammadi

Fuelled by rising energy demand and depleting oil and gas resources, nuclear energy has gained strong momentum in the GCC, particularly in countries like the UAE.  The country has lofty ambitions to generate up to 25 per cent of its electricity needs – or 5.6GW – through nuclear means by 2020.  Abu Dhabi began construction of its first nuclear reactor, Barakah 1, in July 2012, and it is in the process of building three more plants.  Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, the body responsible for the project, announced in February 2014 that the first two plants are on schedule and are up to 35 per cent complete.

Barakah Unit 1 is scheduled to enter commercial operations in 2017 while Unit 2 is scheduled for operations in 2018, pending regulatory approvals. The third and fourth units are slated to begin commercial operations in 2019 and 2020 respectively.  Lady Barbara Judge, a member of the UAE nuclear programme’s International Advisory Board and former chairman of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, says she is confident that the programme will be recognised as the best new built nuclear power project of the century.

“The UAE has a ruler who is very stable and who is very interested in the diversification of energy supply, it doesn’t have the political problems that you have in other countries, it understands the planning process about where to put the power plant, it has got good sites, it has an independent regulator and the country is building schools to develop skills and training among locals,” she explains.

Along with the UAE, another Gulf country that is actively pursuing a nuclear programme is Saudi Arabia.  The Kingdom’s nuclear ambitions are substantially larger. It hopes to become the Middle East’s largest nuclear power producer over the next 20 years at an estimated cost of roughly $100 billion, with plans to build 16 nuclear power plants that will generate 17.6GW of power progressively to 2032.  Saudi’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (Ka-Care), which focuses on energy diversification, has set up an independent regulator, the Saudi Arabian Atomic Regulatory Authority, to oversee the Kingdom’s civil atomic energy programme.   Ka-Care is also in the process of creating the Nuclear Holding Company to serve as the private sector arm of the Kingdom in designing and operating nuclear power plants and research reactors.  Saudi Arabia has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries including Japan, France and Jordan with Ka-Care negotiating with Russia, Czech Republic, UK and the USA for “further cooperation.”

The country hopes to call for preliminary bids for its first nuclear reactor in 2014, say officials. Construction on the first reactor is expected to begin in 2017 and is slated for completion by 2022.  Similar to the UAE, the Kingdom has a stable government, huge coffers and vast land slots – all extremely suitable for nuclear power generation, opines Lady Judge.

However, nuclear energy may not necessarily be the best option for the GCC region, states Mohammed Atif, area manager, Energy Advisory, Middle East at DNV GL – Energy.  “A reasonable diversification of fuels is always beneficial for a region in order to reduce risks and price volatility,” he says…..“Nuclear power plants generally tend to generate electricity only, whereas the GCC is accustomed to co-generation where power plants generate electricity and also desalinate water. Unless the system adopts nuclear technology which incorporates desalination technology, then a challenge remains in terms of ensuring sufficient desalination capacity.”

An Oxford report on nuclear power production in the GCC published in December 2012 also pointed out that nuclear power generation could prove an expensive option for GCC states.  “The substantial initial investment costs, coupled with the high expected level of long run variable costs, is unlikely to render nuclear power cost effective vis-à-vis conventional oil and gas fired power plants in the region,” it says.  The existing absence of cost-recovering power tariffs throughout the GCC already renders effective cost recovery for nuclear power unlikely, implying a substantial bill in the form of nuclear power subsidies to be picked up by GCC governments.”  There are also other hidden costs, such as national and regional security concerns and the future disposal of nuclear waste.

“And the acquisition of nuclear technology by GCC states, albeit for civilian purposes, provides fuel to those critics of nuclear power in the region who fear a nuclear arms race in the Gulf should Iran pursue a nuclear weapons programme in the future.  “All these concerns make nuclear power a potentially costly option for the GCC,” the report cautions.  While initial costs are sizeable, Lady Judge believes that they can be recovered during the long-life of nuclear plants – estimated at around 60 years. She also affirms that energy subsidies are bound to fall away.

Excerpt from Aarti Nagraj, Nuclear Power: Boon Or Bane For The GCC?, Gulf Business, Apr. 19, 2014

Gloves off? Nuclear Race in the Middle East

The United States plans talks with Saudi Arabia on civilian nuclear cooperation, people familiar with the plans said, in a step that has already set off fierce criticism on Capitol Hill.   With the United States hoping to head off an arms race in response to Iran’s nuclear program, officials from President Barack Obama’s administration plan to head to Riyadh in the coming week for nuclear talks, the sources said.  A congressional aide, who requested anonymity as the trip has not been publicly announced, said the visit would be a “preliminary” step to “discuss the possibility of moving forward on a nuclear cooperation agreement.”  A senior lawmaker from the rival Republican Party strongly criticized the visit, pointing to concerns about Saudi financing for Islamic extremists.  “I am astonished that the administration is even considering a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  “Saudi Arabia is an unstable country in an unstable region, with senior officials openly proclaiming that the country may pursue a nuclear weapons capability,” she said in a statement Friday.  “Its ties to terrorists and terror financing alone should rule it out as a candidate for US nuclear cooperation,” she said.

Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with the United States in 2008 during a visit by then president George W. Bush that would give the kingdom access to enriched uranium — meaning, unlike Iran, it would not need to master the nuclear fuel cycle.  But the agreement was only tentative, with little known effort since then to put it into practice.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, with one-fifth of the world’s proven reserves. The kingdom says it wants nuclear power so it does not have to burn lucrative fossil fuels at its power plants. (Nuclearl renaissance) (China-Saudi-Arabia Deal)

But the United States has been worried that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states could develop nuclear weapons if arch-enemy Iran develops an atom bomb. Iran refuses to halt uranium enrichment that it says is for civilian purposes, but which Western nations suspect is meant to develop nuclear weapons.  In 2009, the United States signed a nuclear cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates, which renounced plans to enrich or reprocess uranium and said it would instead obtain material from international suppliers.

US, Saudi Arabia to discuss nuclear cooperation, Agence France Presse, July 30, 2011