Preventing a nuclear meltdown in the Middle East

Preventing a nuclear meltdown in the Middle East
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U.S. geopolitical and nuclear nonproliferation objectives are on a potential collision course as Saudi Arabia seeks to join the Middle East’s growing nuclear power club by soliciting bids for the construction of two reactors. An agreement between the two countries to allow U.S.-supplied nuclear technology to flow to the kingdom must limit nuclear weapons potential and serve geostrategic objectives.

With the nuclear supplier-recipient relationship lasting up to 100 years, it is important that the United States be a principal nuclear partner with Saudi Arabia. It can provide proven technology, strong regulatory capability, and has a long history of strengthening global nuclear governance and opposing proliferation, providing confidence in the Saudis’ nascent program.

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But the pathway to achieving the balance between geopolitical and non-proliferation goals is fraught and the decision-making timeline short, presenting a significant challenge to the Trump administration that conducts the negotiations and the Congress that controls final approval.

 

If the United States insists that the Saudis renounce the possession of nuclear technologies that have dual civil and weapons uses the negotiations may fail, raising geopolitical and security concerns. If it relies on international norms and guidelines instead, they will need to be firmly enforced and strengthened or risk proliferation concerns.

A major worry about Saudi nuclear ambitions is that it will try to match Iran atom-for-atom by possessing uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons materials. While energy diversity is an underlying rationale for the shift from fossil to nuclear generation, a significant impetus is to respond to the nuclear advances by Iran, its regional competitor. Iran’s nuclear program is currently limited under a multilateral agreement because of its weapons implications, but important restrictions will expire in coming years.

The United States has several nuclear cooperation agreements with nations in the Middle East, including Egypt and Morocco, but the most recent one with the United Arab Emirates is significant. This agreement prohibits enrichment and reprocessing and is dubbed the “gold standard.” This restriction exists in only one other agreement, between Taiwan and the United States. But, post-9/11, it has been proposed as a new threshold for future U.S. nuclear collaboration in the Middle East and beyond.

The Saudis have indicated resistance to this restriction, although they have not stated an intention to enrich uranium and have not publicly expressed an interest in plutonium reprocessing.

A consequence of insistence on the “gold standard” is that it could push the Saudis away from American technology and into the embrace of Russia or China, whose reactors likely will come with fewer strings and a cheaper price. This would open the door to greater geopolitical influence by strategic competitors of the United States undermining its political, nonproliferation and security goals. The choice of South Korea to fill the Saudis’ order, as it did for UAE, could partly serve U.S. interests, but would still require a U.S.-Saudi agreement if controlled American componentry is involved.

An alternative to the “gold standard” requires that the United States focus on ensuring the effectiveness of other constraints. This includes enforcing the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) restrictions on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology if it may aid a weapons effort and closing loopholes that non-NSG nations could use to skirt the controls. The Saudis can enhance their nonproliferation credentials by accepting the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This would allow in-depth verification that its nuclear activities are peaceful.

Bilaterally, the United States maintains consent rights over the use and disposition of the nuclear fuel it provides. An additional step can be copied from the U.S.-South Korea nuclear pact, which faced similar pressures to provide access to weapons capable technologies. It allowed for a multi-year joint examination of a sensitive technology without pre-authorizing its use. A comparable approach would recognize the Saudis’ rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty but eliminate immediate concerns about weapon-grade materials in the kingdom.

Nuclear geopolitical and nonproliferation imperatives cannot be in conflict in the Middle East — both are critically important. There are serious concerns about the dangers posed by the production of weapon-grade materials in the region, including a potential Iran-Saudi nuclear arms race and the temptation for nuclear terrorism. There are equally real dangers that without a central U.S. role in the Saudi program nuclear and global security will suffer.

The balance between these goals can be found, but it will require creativity, compromise and a commitment to limit the inevitable imperfections.

Kenneth N. Luongo is president and founder of the Partnership for Global Security and the Center for a Secure Nuclear Future. He served from 1994-1997 as senior advisor to the Secretary of Energy for Nonproliferation Policy and simultaneously as the Department of Energy’s director of the Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation.