Inside Saudi Arabia’s Global Push for Nuclear Power

For years, Saudi Arabia has pressured the United States to help it develop a nuclear power program, as Saudi leaders look beyond oil to feed their country.

But talks about a nuclear partnership have dragged on, largely because the Saudi government refuses to agree to conditions that are intended to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons or help other nations to do so, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.

Frustrated Saudi officials are now exploring options for working with other countries, including China, Russia or a US ally.

At the same time, they are renewing a push with the United States, their preferred partner, by offering to try to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US cooperation in building nuclear reactors and other guarantees.

New details of Saudi efforts provide a window into recent difficulties and mistrust between Washington and Riyadh, and the foreign policy pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: greater independence from the United States as it expands partnerships with other world powers , including porcelain.

Some analysts say that’s part of a strategy to pressure Washington to work with the Saudi government on its own terms; others say the prince sees an emerging multipolar world in which the United States plays a less dominant role. Saudi Arabia also agreed in March to a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran after China acted as an intermediary.

Saudi nuclear efforts raise a proliferation specter that makes some US officials nervous: Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has said Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so. Any civilian nuclear program has dual-use elements that could help a country produce weapons-grade material.

But Prince Mohammed also believes he has the right to exploit the kingdom’s potentially vast uranium deposits for both energy and export. That would create a new source of income for the kingdom and could give Saudi Arabia greater geopolitical weight. China is already working with Saudi Arabia on uranium prospecting.

Speaking at a conference in Riyadh in January, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister, said plans to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel, including for export, were even “more important” than the proposed reactors in Saudi Arabia. The energy ministry said in a statement that the bidding process for two reactors involves “various technology providers” and that it expected to receive proposals soon.

Enrichment ambitions make some US officials nervous, even if Saudi Arabia’s turn to nuclear power would align with the Biden administration’s support for low-carbon energy.

“They have a legitimate case for needing to use their uranium for energy so they can sell what’s left of their oil before it runs out or the market crashes or something else happens,” said Hussein Ibish, an academic at the Institute of the Arab Gulf States in Washington.

The United States requires countries to meet high nonproliferation standards before cooperating on a nuclear program, including, in some cases, banning uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing on its soil. The details are enshrined in a 123 agreement, which the Department of State negotiates on the advice of the Department of Energy. The pact must be reviewed by Congress, which can block it.

Saudi officials have refused to commit to the restrictions, which would undermine their goal of enriching and selling uranium.

Even if Saudi officials express a willingness to sign a 123 deal, any deal would face significant political hurdles in Washington. President Biden mistrusts Prince Mohammed and denounced Saudi Arabia during an outburst over Riyadh’s oil policy in October. And many Democratic and some Republican lawmakers say Saudi Arabia has been a destabilizing force.

“Absolutely not,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, said in an interview when asked if he would support a deal that would allow Saudi Arabia to use US nuclear technology. “It’s not a start.”

The White House and the State Department declined requests for official interviews, and the department only responded to written questions. The US and Saudi officials who spoke did so on condition of anonymity.

The State Department said the United States had been negotiating a deal with Saudi Arabia since 2012, but declined to provide details. Trump administration officials and advisers promoted the nuclear effortoften secretly, a move opposed by some senators, citing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the potential for the development of nuclear weapons.

The State Department said the Biden administration “is committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s clean energy transition, including its efforts to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program.” The department added that the United States requires “the highest international standards” in “security, nonproliferation, export controls, and physical security.”

The Saudi energy ministry said the kingdom’s “peaceful nuclear energy program” would be based on “transparency and international best practices” and would work closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and countries that have signed blanket agreements. with the Saudis to help with nuclear power. Among them are China, Russia, South Korea and France.

Some Saudi officials believe that the United States has been an unreliable partner that has radically changed its policy and failed to deliver on security and economic cooperation.

The American and Saudi champions of nuclear power in the kingdom saw an opportunity when President Donald J. Trump sought to establish ties with Prince Mohammed.

The energy efforts began early in the administration, when a consortium of US companies, including Westinghouse, expressed interest in Saudi Arabia’s proposed nuclear reactor project. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, and Thomas J. Barrack Jr., an investor who was chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, pushed for the United States to get involved.

Those initial efforts stalled after the two men became embroiled in separate legal matters over other dealings with foreign officials.

Democratic lawmakers have opened an investigation into the nuclear efforts and issued a report saying White House lawyers had questioned the legality and ethics of the proposed ventures. That did not deter the administration. Rick Perry, the secretary of energy, took the lead.

Mr. Perry issued seven clearances to US companies, allowing them to transfer unclassified US nuclear technology, but no physical equipment, to Saudi Arabia.

However, US officials said they were unable to produce any deal 123 that they thought would pass Congress.

In September 2020, Trump held a White House ceremony in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel in a pact called the Abraham Accords. Saudi leaders told the White House that nuclear cooperation was a condition for their country to join, a former senior administration official said. But Trump left office before a deal could be reached.

“Nuclear to me is where you want to go,” Perry said in an interview at an investment conference in Riyadh. But in baseball terms, he said, the talks with Trump only got to “the second” inning.

He paused, then added, “The top of the second.”

As the Biden administration insists on certain safeguards, Saudi officials continue to search for non-US companies.

One attractive one is the Korea Electric Power Corporation, or Kepco, based in South Korea. A company spokesman said Kepco is talking to US officials about the nuclear program and is interested in working with Saudi Arabia, but declined to elaborate, citing a confidentiality agreement with Saudi Arabia.

But the South Korean government, a US ally, would likely bar the company from participating in the project if Saudi Arabia does not sign a strict non-proliferation agreement with a government or the International Atomic Energy Agency. The company said it hoped “conditions for participation in the project will be created.” And a complicating factor is a legal dispute between Kepco and Westinghouse over reactor designs.

French bidders would be in a similar situation. And working with Moscow would be unattractive to Riyadh due to US and European sanctions on Russia.

Although Saudi officials think US nuclear technology is the best option, they are open to considering Chinese technology. Saudi Arabia and China have forged closer ties recently, including on oil and military cooperation.

China has built Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile arsenal for decades and sends military officers to work on the program, current and former US officials have said. And with Chinese technology, Saudi Arabia can now build your own missiles, they said. New satellite images showing bulldozer activity at previous missile sites indicate that Saudi Arabia could harbor a new type of missile underground, said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies.

The missile program is separate from any nuclear power effort, but it shows how closely China works with Saudi Arabia on highly technical and sensitive projects.

China’s leader Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December after nearly three years of isolation due to the pandemic. Him and King Salman issued a statement in which they promised to “cooperate in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

During his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016, Xi oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding to help build a reactor.

Chinese nuclear companies have also offered to help explore and develop the country’s uranium resources. In 2017, the China National Nuclear Corporation and the Saudi Arabian Geological Survey signed a memorandum of understanding in the inspection of uranium deposits. In 2021, the Saudi Geological Survey issued a “certificate of appreciation” to the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology for assistance in exploring for uranium and thorium resources.

Over the past three to four years, China has helped Saudi Arabia develop six to eight uranium prospecting sites in the western half of the country, Lewis said. They have yet to build grinding and processing plants, which are necessary for uranium enrichment.

edward wong reported from Washington, viviana nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and kate kelly from Riyadh and Washington. The report was contributed by chris buckley in Taipei, Taiwan and Juan Yoon and jin yu young in seoul.