Mark HibbsSaudi Arabian Uranium Enrichment?

A couple of weeks ago I summarized here that Saudi Arabia was moving ahead with plans to do nuclear power and that there were some potential issues.

In July, after having read that some weighty nuclear industry companies were trying to dip their toes into Arabian sands, I talked this over with some people who know their way around Riyadh.

They related that Saudi officials they talk to spelled out that, yes, the kingdom is very interested in doing nuclear power, but, no, it isn’t prepared right now to copy what the UAE did in 2008 and commit itself to forego domestic uranium enrichment and reprocessing. The UAE did that in the fine print of its 123 agreement with the US, which by the way was nicely appraised by friends at CRS.

Given what the State Department has been saying about the importance of limiting enrichment and reprocessing activities under US 123 agreements especially with countries in the Middle East–including in the text of the US-UAE agreement itself—that was certainly interesting, and for my Carnegie piece I recorded that “Western diplomats say that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to conclude an agreement on the same terms as UAE.”

US government people didn’t tell me that directly, of course, but no one in an official capacity in Washington has since challenged that statement.

But there is a little back story.

While I was looking at this last month, some people in Riyadh who had been trying to work with the Saudi government to kick start its nuclear program, told me they had strongly suspected that the Saudis had gotten cold feet about giving up altogether on getting into the sensitive parts of the fuel cycle. They began to suspect that when some of Saudi Arabia’s budding European, Japanese, and U.S. nuclear “cooperators” started getting a push back in corridors of power in Washington. That happened, they suggested, after the “cooperators” indicated they wanted the US to make a deeper commitment to do nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia than the US currently right now sees fit.

When that proposition wasn’t too well-received, they then asked people they knew in USG agencies if perhaps there was a problem because Riyadh had told Washington it might in fact be interested in uranium enrichment. And so they politely asked USG people if such an interest on Saudi Arabia’s part was documented anywhere, and they were tersely told by USG contacts that that subject is…umm… classified.

When you get a response like that, it very often means you’re on to something.

Now, I can’t prove that Saudi Arabia has gone back on a previous understanding with the US not to enrich and reprocess, nor that it wants to enrich uranium, but I did find this:

  • “Saudi Arabia and Bahrain signed separate MOUs on Nuclear Energy Cooperation with the US in May 2008. Both included the same commitments to forego domestic enrichment and reprocessing that the UAE had earlier put forward in its policy white paper.”

and then this:

  • Poyry, a Finnish power industry consulting company, has been tapped by Saudi Arabia to, among other things nuclear, look into the feasibility and prospects of enriching uranium there, according to two named executives in a Reuters interview.

Saudi Arabia is not the kind of place you dial up and get answers in a hurry, but if that country is looking into uranium enrichment, is that in fact a big deal?

Well, don’t forget that we already had a little bit of Sturm und Drang on Capitol Hill this month over what the US might or might not let Vietnam do under a future nuclear cooperation agreement with Hanoi after the State Department underscored that these days it seems to be more worried about the Middle East than about South East Asia.

(What you hear on C Street and thereabouts is that the “problem” with Vietnam is a red herring someone in Congress put on the grill this summer. Because if you look carefully at the US-UAE agreement, they’ll tell you, you’ll see it’s modeled on the US agreement with Egypt, and what’s more the US-UAE documents spell out plainly that the Middle East—but not South East Asia or Vietnam—is the part of the world for which the US-UAE agreement is meant to be a model).

In any event Saudi’s apparent interest in uranium processing seems to have disturbed some people at a blog site connected to NEI, the US nuclear industry’s most powerful lobby organization. Nuclear power plant vendors don’t want to see a potential market with a lot of money vanish like a mirage in the desert because  a potential public relations showstopper like this appears on the horizon.

So what will the US eventually do in this case? If it’s true that Saudi Arabia is reneging on an MOU with the State Department that committed it not to enrich and reprocess—and is now engaging in “nuclear hedging” (an expression which is getting more and more popular among Middle East policy analysts these days, the closer Iran gets to weapons capability)—we could then speculate, assuming the US does want to negotiate a nuclear trade agreement with Saudi Arabia in the first place, about what would be the price the US might have to pay to get Riyadh to avoid trying to increase the U-235 isotopic concentration of any uranium they might someday own. Let’s also say that’s especially the case since Saudi officials have complained at length that George W. Bush beginning in 2003 directly contributed to Iran’s eclipsing Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states as the region’s rising power.

In Washington you occasionally hear people who might well know it suggest that Obama won’t go near a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia so as not to ruffle the feathers of lawmakers who are closely watching for any sign that the US might do something which would detract from Israel’s security. That, however, doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t negotiate a 123 agreement with Riyadh, you also hear in some quarters.

Why not? Because having a 123 agreement in place committing Saudi Arabia not to enrich uranium and separate plutonium would be better than having an agreement without this condition, and it may be better than having no agreement at all.

Should a US-Saudi agreement come to pass whereby Riyadh agrees not to enrich and reprocess, and should Saudi Arabia then instead built Japanese, Korean, or French reactors, the US-Saudi agreement would mean that any, say, Japanese or French nuclear cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia could not include uranium enrichment or reprocessing. Were Saudi Arabia on its own to set up an enrichment program somewhere on its vast empty territory, that would constitute a violation of its agreement with the US and result in suspension of any nuclear cooperation with US entities which follows from the 123 agreement.

Or would the Congress prefer we didn’t negotiate such an agreement with Saudi Arabia for some reason? One reason might be that, if we do that, it would tell the world we think Saudi Arabia is a good place to do nuclear business in. Internally, some USG people muddy the waters even more, arguing somehow that just because we have a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia, that doesn’t mean we have to implement it.

In the meantime, the President so far has not requested the Department of State to negotiate a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Why not? The semi-official reason you will hear most frequently is that Obama wants to see how the UAE agreement is implemented first.

Is that really true? If it is, then King Abdullah will have to wait quite a while for his 123 agreement with the US, since the first of four PWRs which the UAE last year ordered from South Korea won’t be coming on line until maybe 2017.

What’s more likely, however, is that the USG won’t negotiate a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia at least until Washington fixes its problem with Jordan.

Unlike Vietnam, Jordan is in the Middle East. What’s happening there? Well, in 2008 the US wanted to negotiate an agreement with the other King Abdullah—Jordan’s—under which Amman would not enrich or reprocess. But that plan didn’t factor in the Chairman of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, Khalid Toukan (right).

Now it turns out that Dr Toukan is one of several MIT-trained nuclear engineers (another is Brazil’s centrifuge-builder Othon Pinheiro da Silva) who studied hard, digested Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” message, went back home, and are now dedicated to preventing the US Department of State from interfering with their countries’ NPT Article IV rights.

Dr Toukan will tell you, and anyone else prepared to listen, that it makes perfect sense for Jordan to keep its uranium-processing options open. That, for now, is holding up the 123 agreement with the US on terms which the US will consent to.

Dr Toukan says Jordan won’t give up its right to enrich. The US says, if you don’t, we won’t cooperate with you.

So is there a way out of this dilemma? Yes there is. Stay tuned.

But let’s return to Saudi Arabia’s interest in uranium enrichment.

If Saudi Arabia (or for that matter Jordan, or Vietnam) even wanted to enrich uranium, even under the terms of a 123 agreement which some people in Congress this month got all hot and bothered about, neither the US nor other current technology holders in the NPT are going to help them learn how to do it.

Back in 2004, Bush had proposed that we all ban the export of enrichment technology to any country that hadn’t already demonstrated that capability. Bush had his heart in the right place, but the result of his enthusiasm for global technology denial was a mini-stampede by a bunch of countries which concluded that, if they didn’t get cracking on setting up projects for uranium enrichment right away, then the US, Russia, Japan, and the Urenco triumvirate (Germany, Netherlands, U.K.) would make sure that they would never succeed.

In other words, according to this view, Bush created a nonproliferation conundrum that before 2004 had never existed, especially since until then, the established enrichers in the NPT were not sharing their technology with anybody anyway.

The whole thing took on a life of its own, however, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group started drafting new rules for global enrichment and reprocessing trade. This debate heated up (or, as my Carnegie colleague James Acton might prefer, “hotted up”) after Bush in 2008 gave up on the idea of banning enrichment in newcomer countries, and the US joined in. But the issue appears to be going nowhere at the moment—see Elaine Grossman’s summary of this issue—and for a bunch of reasons I pointed out in another Carnegie piece, which I put out last week, I argued that, as nice as it would be to have a good agreement on new NSG guidelines for the export of enrichment and reprocessing items, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to come up with a document that has holes in it. With or without the new guidelines, it’s extremely likely that none of the existing technology holders in the NPT, all of which are in the NSG, will in the future agree to provide enrichment technology to Saudi Arabia outside of the “black box” paradigm we’ve seen since the early 1990s in Russian enrichment plants set up in China and in ETC-based enrichment plants under construction now in France and the US.

Given that prospect, it will be very interesting to learn what that Finnish consultant tells King Abdullah about the feasibility of Saudi Arabia enriching uranium someday.


  1. amir (History)

    Iran can sell this technology to other countries too

  2. hass (History)

    I think the North-South conflict over control of the uranium fuel cycle goes back a lot longer than you think. The Final Document of the United Nations General Assembly resolution S-10/2 which was adopted at the 27th plenary meeting of the tenth special session on 30 June 1978 stated in paragraph 69:

    “Each country’s choices and decisions in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel-cycle policies”.

    This language was reiterated in the final document of the 1980 NPT Review Conference and has been consistently reiterated in every Review Conference since then, including the 1995 Review Conference, the 2000 NPT Review Conference and in the Final Document of the 10th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2002.

    According to a 2004 analysis by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies:

    Since most states with fuel cycle capabilities are from the developed world, it is clear that the target group of the proposal is the developing world.

    • mark (History)

      Hass, I would not disagree that this N-S conflict existed before, but there’s no question, based on what has been happening inside BOG meetings the last several years, that it has intensified to the point that a lot of people frankly aren’t even talking to each other. When I re-read the Article IV talking points from the 1970s and 1980s, however, what comes to mind is not so much issues dividing advanced nuclear states as a group from developing states as a group, but the designs of ONE advanced nuclear state, the US, to deny activities in a few other advanced nuclear states.

    • shaheen (History)

      Hass, China and India have had fuel cycle facilities for decades. Could we leave aside categories which are meaningless today? I mean, “North/South” – this is so 1970. More importantly, Mark has it right: the creation of URENCO by Germany, the Netherlands and the UK was once describe as “an act of independence” from the United States.

  3. blowback (History)

    “If Saudi Arabia (or for that matter Jordan, or Vietnam) even wanted to enrich uranium, even under the terms of a 123 agreement which some people in Congress this month got all hot and bothered about, neither the US nor other current technology holders in the NPT are going to help them learn how to do it.”

    What about Pakistan?

    • mark (History)

      Pakistan is not in NSG or the NPT but it could help them, point well taken, given what we have heard (and still hear) from officials about links between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and, beyond that, China. The US after 2002 or so read I-bad the riot act about Khan and Pakistan of course promised that would be history. There are in fact some conditions for current US aid to Pakistan which are written into US law and are relevant in this regard. I didn’t mention this in the post but maybe even more interesting is the prospect that new “southern” suppliers in the NPT–Brazil? South Africa? Argentina?–might be less inclined in the future to be generous with their sensitive know-how. But I guess we can be pretty sure Saudi Arabia won’t get any help from Iran. One thing about Pakistan to consider, by the way, is that the NSG has an outreach program for all three significant non-NPT parties–Pakistan, India, and Israel–and if Pakistan is serious about wanting the NSG’s approval for an exemption for at least its nuclear reactor trade with China, then Pakistan would be well advised to do as the NSG member states are doing and not export enrichment and reprocessing technology to newcomers like Saudi Arabia.

  4. Magoo (History)

    Mark, I agree with your conclusion that neither the US nor other current technology holders in the NPT is going to help the Saudi regime to learn the enrichment process. However, there are states that are neither members of the NPT or the NSG, who have, and could be inveigled into providing the necessary know how. More specifically the relationship between Islamabad and Wahabhi regime in Saudi Arabia is much more intricate than analysts in the West seem to understand or accept. Pakistan is an “economically” failed State that benefits from the largesse of Saudi rulers with a complex ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ strategy in place. I would not be as confident as you that the Saudis do not have access to enrichment process, the NPT and NSG notwithstanding. Considering its dependence on Arabian oil there is little the US can do to deter Riyadh from acquiring the enrichment process from a hitherto confirmed proliferate with whom there are deeply imbedded strategic ties – Magoo

    • mark (History)

      Hi Magoo. In principle, yes, you’re right. See my above remarks to blowback. The US can’t prevent Pakistan from proliferating its enrichment know-how to Saudi Arabia, agreed. But it’s always a game of carrots and sticks. A Pakistani friend told me in 2003: “If the US in the future were to find out that Pakistan once again permitted scientists or the military or ISI to sell its know-how, they’d take Pakistan apart brick by brick.” I don’t know if it would transpire like this, exactly, but I got the point…

  5. Fazal Habib Curmally (History)

    Unless you have proven Uranium deposits, enrichment of Uranium is a mug’s game. You have the case of Libya before you.

    • mark (History)

      Another argument why universalization of the Additional Protocol is very important: There are a few emerging uranium suppliers which don’t have NPT safeguards agreements and have not signed an Additional Protocol. We have no idea whether any of their uranium is being shipped to places where it shouldn’t be going.

  6. Andrew (History)

    Excellent piece, Mark!

  7. Nick (History)

    From an energy security perspective most states are going to be wary of depending on a third party for their fuel. And secondly the Saudi’s do carry a big stick – oil.

  8. James (History)

    Suppose Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and … were to say to the USG “Thanks, but no thanks. You can’t supply us medical isotopes, or fuel for our research reactor, or build us a new research reactor. You can’t even build us a nuclear power plant. We can get uranium and nuclear fuel cycle services from others. You have nothing nuclear unique to offer us. What you could offer us – a nuclear umbrella with your arsenal of strike-ready nuclear weapons – you won’t.”

    • mark (History)

      James, just a little thinking aloud “zur spaeten Stunde” (you probably know that I’m here in Berlin and it’s just past midnight…) this is the 64K question. When will this come up? When/if Obamba’s strategic guys (I don’t mean the nonproliferation lawyers on C Street, who have a different brief…) start expending grey cells about how to deal with South Korea. What you are saying is what people in the presidential office in Seoul are saying (at least some of them), namely, that, “Hey, we are your best allies in this region, we are doing heavy lifting for you, the IAEA has concluded in its ‘broader conclusion’ that our nuclear program is peaceful, we have an additional protocol, what more do you want from us? You’re trying to inhibit our nuclear program…” You know all these talking points. So do they NEED nuclear cooperation with the US? Maybe not. They can get what they need from the ROK, from France, from Russia, from Japan… the ultimate line of defence for the US: intellectual property rights. That’s the line up. Question is whether USG is going to cross some politically uncorrect lines in the future to positively engage with the world on this stuff. Technology denial has its place, but it’s not the alpha and omega.

  9. krepon (History)

    red herring on the grill?

  10. Philip White (History)

    The suggestion that the US might not require Vietnam to accept the UAE conditions makes me wonder how much simpler things would have been in East Asia without the Japan precedent. This also relates to South Korea’s determined push to be allowed to reprocess. There may not be much to be gained now by blaming the Japan precedent for the current impasse, but it is there in the background reminding us how double standards come back to haunt us.

    • mark (History)

      Philip, when you start making exceptions, it gets to be a habit…

  11. Alex (History)

    How are their CSS2 missiles these days?

    • mark (History)

      Great question–anyone know the answer? I had some info from Western officials last month who said they were certainly there and a worry,all right. I got earlier this month some insistent e-mails claiming that I was missing a major development because Saudi Arabia already had Chinese warheads on them… that was news to me–and probably to a whole lot of other people who really know about this subject.

    • Alex (History)

      Come to think of it, they must be coming up for replacement – the Chinese have been swapping out the CSS-2/DF-3A from their own forces in favour of the DF-21, apparently they’re down to 16 missiles still in service, and 1981 is a long time ago. Those rockets are only a year younger than I am.

      Will they replace them? Will the Chinese sell to them? China 1981 was quite a different polity to China today.

  12. FSB (History)

    Where are the right wing think-tanks whining about Saudi and UAE’s pursuit of nuclear energy because both countries have soooo much oil (that is, as they do with Iran)? When do we bomb the Saudis?

    • mark (History)

      The argument put forth by some nonproliferators, that Iran’s nuclear program is unjustified because Iran has huge oil reserves, is grossly unfair and arrogant. It is also politically counterproductive because it reflects true ignorance about the legitimate concerns that are raised by developing countries.

  13. handy gadget (History)


    Tactically, you may very well be right. In the long-run, though, the further spread of nuclear power will mean the furhter spread of nuclear fuel making and not just in convenient black boxes in countries we like doing business with. Ignoring this prospect has made the further spread of large reactors seem fine. Indeed, the Bush and Obama administrations have promoted the spread of “legitimate” nuclear energy programs in some of the most dangerous places (e.g., the Middle and Far East). We did this once before in the 1970s and, thankfully backed off. As a result, we only got Osirak, Bushehr and large reasearch reactors in Algeria, Syria and Egypt (i.e., only four probable covert nuclear weapons efforts plus Israel). Given that the laws of nature, physics and human character haven’t likely changed much since then, focusing on your tactical points, however well taken they might be, is probably a strategic mistake.

    Handy Gadget

  14. Adil (History)

    I remeber Perkovich’s words that enrichment technology would be the new “status symbol” for new nuclear states

  15. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Am I wrong here in saying this? But my first reaction to the concept of a nuclear Saudi Arabia is the thought that they buy everything. Do they have in house developed talent base that operates in depth on any major weapons systems? One has to wonder how a nuclear arsenal will work when you don’t have any loyal citizens to design the bomb, make the parts, assemble the bomb, keep the bomb, and turn the keys when the time comes and of course sweep the floors and clean the toilets around all the infrastructure. Having that train of systems and people left to contractors sounds like a formula for disaster from the Saudi point of view.