Saudi nuclear work advances amid worry about proliferation

March 29, 2018
Announcement due soon about contracts for two nuclear power projects in Saudi Arabia holds drama beyond normal questions concerning who gets the business.

Announcement due soon about contracts for two nuclear power projects in Saudi Arabia holds drama beyond normal questions concerning who gets the business.

By itself, the business suspense is intriguing.

The kingdom plans to build 16 reactors over 25 years for an estimated $80 billion.

Imminent is its decision about favored bidders from among groups representing China, Russia, South Korea, France, and the US.

But concern naturally arises that Saudi Arabia might use the acquired technology to develop nuclear weapons.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman made no effort to finesse that issue in his recent visit to the US. In an interview with CBS, he said his country doesn’t want nuclear weapons—unless Iran acquires them.

The Islamic Republic’s nuclear development is of course limited to peaceful uses by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, implemented in January 2016 and regularly disparaged by US President Donald Trump.

Iranian leaders say the program always has been peaceful. Trump, by moving opponents of JCPA into key foreign-policy positions, seems lately to have signaled he’ll reinstate Iranian sanctions when the next opportunity arises in May, effectively scuttling the agreement.

Iran then might start—or resume, as the case may be—developing nuclear weapons.

The promised Saudi response thus sets an ominous tone for lucrative nuclear-energy work.

Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the US requires countries acquiring nuclear technology to commit to peaceful uses. Terms vary.

To help its companies, the US might give Riyadh extra latitude. Such a move would relax limits on weapons development from countries with existing commitments, prominent among them the United Arab Emirates.

The Saudis, meanwhile, have close relations with Pakistan, which maintains nuclear weapons in its balance of tension with India.

Mohammad bin Salman has visited Pakistan, and Pakistani military officials more recently have met him and other officials in Riyadh.

The Iranian contingency thus adds pressure to high-stakes business competition already freighted with worry about nuclear proliferation.

As always, though, Trump might be bluffing.

(From the subscription area of www.ogj.com, posted Mar. 29, 2018; author’s email: [email protected])