Saudi Arabia still pushing nuclear reactors, and the U.S. is still happy to oblige

Whether Saudi allowed a rogue operation or went rogue itself, Khashoggi's killing raises key questions about the U.S. ally.

President Donald Trump and SaudiCrown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. CREDIT: Mandel Ngan/  AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and SaudiCrown Prince Mohammed bin Salman take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. CREDIT: Mandel Ngan/ AFP/Getty Images)

As Saudi Arabia pushes its narrative on how dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi came to be killed inside the consulate in Istanbul, there are fresh questions about its suitability as a U.S. security partner in the region.

While most of these questions focus on weapons sales to the Gulf Arab Kingdom and its role in the war in Yemen, what’s looming in the background is far bigger: A potential nuclear threat, one which the U.S. might actually help create.

Saudi Arabia wants to build two nuclear reactors (to start), and is currently taking bids on who will build them. Among the contenders are businesses from Russia, China, South Korea and, yes, the United States, where Westinghouse has been reported as a potential contractor.

While hoping a U.S. company gets the project, the Trump administration is simultaneously trying to get Saudi Arabia to sign on to a “123 Agreement” — a civilian nuclear agreement setting non-proliferation standards to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon by setting limits on uranium enrichment, as well the reprocessing of spent fuels.


Basically, under U.S. law, U.S. companies can’t engage in significant nuclear cooperation with countries that don’t sign a 123 Agreement — so, no 123 Agreement, no deal for Westinghouse or any other U.S. energy company.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been in talks with Saudi Arabia over signing the agreement, but so far, no dice. Perry has given a “better us than them” reason for the U.S. building Saudi reactors, saying that other countries lack the nonproliferation standards the U.S. has. But how far are we willing to bend those standards?

ThinkProgress sent a query to the Department of Energy asking whether trying to get Saudi to sign on to an agreement while bidding for the project constituted a conflict of interest (the administration is in the position to stop pushing for strict controls such as asking for prior consent on alteration of spent nuclear fuels, in exchange for a U.S. company getting the bid), but did not receive a response.

Although Sec. Rick Perry is working on negotiating the terms of the 123 Agreements with Saudi Arabia, the deal is ultimately signed with the State Department.


“The issue with Saudi Arabia is, should it be required to meet the so-called ‘gold standard’ [additional restrictions under the umbrella of the 123 Agreement] and commit to not having domestic enrichment and reprocessing because it’s in a sensitive region in the Middle East and those facilities could be construed as having a latent military capability and would inflame tensions?” said Edwin Lyman, senior global security scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Lawmakers are certainly concerned about this.

Worried that President Trump would not require the Saudis to forgo domestic enrichment and reprocessing, lawmakers in September — before Khashoggi’s death — introduced bipartisan bill demanding that the president report on the national security implications of Saudi Arabia obtaining nuclear fuel enrichment capabilities, which could amount to a “bomb starter kit.

But the bill was not introduced in time (there aren’t 90 days left to debate the bill) and will have to be punted to next year. The Saudis reportedly want a deal signed by the end of this year.

The concerns about nuclear materials in Saudi started to grow after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS’s 60 Minutes in March that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, so too will Saudi Arabia.This would be a violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Saudi Arabia and Iran are signatories.

“If you can break norms of international law and civility with impunity [as Saudi Arabia seems to have done in the killing of Khashoggi], it certainly would raise doubts about their bona fides in committing to their obligations under the treaty,” said Lyman.

A treaty, after all, explained Lyman, is nothing but a nation’s “political word.”

Breaking the NPT would mean the Saudis would have violated their safeguard agreement and, then, it becomes a matter of how the international community — and the Trump administration — wants to respond.


Given this reality, the question, said Lyman, is whether the U.S. should be signing any kind of nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia at all, “and whether it makes sense for the U.S. to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.” Lyman told ThinkProgress he is concerned about widespread deployment of nuclear technology in the region, at the very least because nuclear reactors are seen as targets.

This seems all the more salient now, even if one were to take the Saudis at their word on the circumstances Khashoggi’s killing. How secure can a country be if such a “rogue” operation, including 15 men, two private jets, a Consulate General, and the commandeering of a consulate office, essentially, can take place without any leadership knowledge?

ThinkProgress also posed this question to the DoE — again, no response.

As of now, the Trump administration is not doing much to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on a visit there this week, celebrating the country’s Vision 2030 agenda, which includes the building of many more nuclear reactors.

If Saudi claims on Khashoggi are true — and there’s not much to support that at this point — what that tells us, said Lyman, is “the security apparatus is acting on its own outside the authority of the country’s leadership.”

And that certainly raises questions with regard to a whole host of of security matters, not the least of which would be the safe, secure operation of nuclear power.

Now, of course, 123 Agreement or not, Saudi Arabia could award its nuclear contract to a Russian or Chinese company (South Korea uses U.S. parts so it would be bound to U.S. rules) — the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency would still be in the picture. And if Saudi Arabia is in violation of the NPT, the United States, said Lyman, still has “levers to pull” — withholding arms deals and sanctions, for instance.

Over items that are not covered by 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) — such as Iran’s presence in Syria — President Trump in May pulled the U.S. out of the multilateral agreement.

By all accounts, Iran was — and still is — complying with the terms of the deal, which curtailed its enrichment activities (among other things), in exchange for sanctions relief.

President Trump has reimposed the sanctions on Iran and leans heavily on Saudi Arabia as a regional check against the country. So whether the U.S. has an appetite for such any punitive response against potential Saudi violations and how the current crisis with kingdom will play out remains to be seen.

“It’s not like Iran, where they’ve consistently denied ever wanting to make a nuclear weapon,” said Lyman, adding that Mohammed bin Salman stated his goals very plainly, with little regard for the consequences. “When he made that statement, that was basically a signal that he’s not that concerned about his image as good guy.”