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Want Nuclear Controls on Riyadh? Start with Seoul

NPEC's Executive Director and Program Advisor publish a new piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Facing reality in the US-Saudi nuclear agreement: South Korea," explaining a new reason why it is dangerous to cut a permissive civil nuclear cooperative agreement with Saudi Arabia that does not require Saudi Arabia to forswear enriching uranium or recycling spent reactor fuel.

Apr 10, 2018
AUTHOR: Victor Gilinsky & Henry Sokolski

Below is a piece that Victor Gilinsky and and Henry Sokolski published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Facing reality in the US-Saudi nuclear agreement: South Korea." It explains a new reason why it is dangerous to cut a permissive civil nuclear cooperative agreement with Saudi Arabia that does not require Saudi Arabia to forswear enriching uranium or recycling spent reactor fuel -- two activities that could enable Riyadh to quickly make nuclear explosives. The Trump Administration's key argument for not making this demand is that if America doesn't sell the Saudis reactors, the Russians (or others) will.

Putting aside the improbability of either Russia or Westinghouse making a sale (see myths #2 and #3 in "Five Myths About Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Program"), this argument ignores the probability that South Korea will be the one to seal the deal. In fact, Seoul is already training 41 Saudi engineers on how to build and operate its Korean-designed SMART Reactor (System integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor). This 100 MWe nuclear power unit does not contain key US components. As a result, it could be exported to Saudi Arabia without a US-Saudi nuclear cooperative agreement in place. More important, under the terms of the nuclear cooperative agreement Seoul struck with Riyadh.

The lax character of South Korea's nuclear agreement with the Saudis is why it is so important for the United States to get Riyadh to forswear enriching or reprocessing under the proposed US agreement for nuclear cooperation. It's not because the Saudis might buy American or Russian; it's because they very well may buy Korean.


Facing Reality in the US-Saudi Nuclear Agreement:
South Korea
By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski

The Trump administrations is on the verge of signing a nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia that is reportedly “flexible” on Saudi acquisition of centrifuge technology to enrich uranium—the technology that can provide material for nuclear weapons and that was the central concern in regard to Iran’s nuclear program. This flexibility is necessary, the administration argues, to ensure the Saudis choose Westinghouse as their nuclear power reactor supplier. But Westinghouse, which performed abysmally on its last two US projects and is in bankruptcy as a result, is far less likely to win the bid than the South Korean construction firm whose work force is coming off successful completion of a large nuclear project nearby in the United Arab Emirates. This increases the importance of striking a tight US-Saudi agreement to ensure the Saudis don’t get to enrich under their nuclear cooperative agreement with Seoul.

The administration’s pitch that Congress should go along with “flexibility” pulls out all the usual bogeymen. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 22 that, “Either Russia or China is going to be a partner in building civil nuclear capability in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the United States.” The Saudis, guided by several Washington lobbying firms, have been pushing this line, which much of the Washington establishment has swallowed, adding that allowing Moscow to gain a nuclear foothold in Saudi Arabia would deal a serious blow to US regional influence and prestige.

But the Saudis are not so foolish as to choose Russia or China. Moscow is nuclear supplier to Saudi Arabia’s foe, Iran, and Beijing has yet to bring a power reactor online outside of China. The Saudis already have a significant history of nuclear involvement with South Korea. They signed an agreement for “cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy” in 2011 and a memorandum of understanding in 2015, with a view to buying two smaller, so-called small modular (SMART) Korean reactors. Dozens of Saudis have gone to South Korea for nuclear training.

In these circumstances, the enrichment provision in the 2011 Saudi-South Korean agreement is of vital concern. It reads as follows: “Uranium transferred pursuant to this Agreement or used in any equipment so transferred shall not be enriched to twenty (20) percent or more in the isotope U-235 unless the Parties otherwise agree.” In other words, the 2011 agreement permits installation of Saudi enrichment facilities generally, and in particular the enrichment to 20 percent of uranium supplied under the agreement. A reason this is worrying—and was worrying in the case of Iran—is that, although it may seem counter intuitive, to further enrich the 20 percent product to a bomb explosive level takes only an additional one-tenth of the work it took to get to 20 percent. It becomes especially worrying when coupled with the Saudi Crown Prince’s hair-trigger promise (see this 60 Minutes interview) that if Iran got a bomb, the Kingdom would, too, “as soon as possible.”

This means that if we intend to bar Saudi Arabia’s path to nuclear weapons, and we absolutely should, we have to insist on a provision in our agreement with Saudi Arabia like that included in the agreement with its UAE neighbor: that the country will not engage in its territory in activities related to enrichment or reprocessing (extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel—the other path to a bomb). And we need to make sure South Korea agrees to hold off on moving forward on Saudi reactors until such a provision is in place.

Why would Saudi Arabia agree to such a restrictive provision? And why would South Korea agree to cooperate in ensuring it is in place. The short answer is that both countries depend on our protection. If we can pressure countries on trade terms—something the administrations brags about—surely, we can do so in the interest of security. As US Sen. Jack Reed, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in response to Perry’s testimony, "The proliferation dangers are so great that we should be able to wield all of the influence we have, which goes way beyond just this one transaction, to insist [on the] same standards we applied to the Emirates." And as President Gerald Ford said many years ago, “nonproliferation objectives must take precedence over economic and energy benefits if a choice must be made.”

This of course assumes the administration adheres to the traditional US policy objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, even among friends. An especially worrying aspect of this entire affair is that there seems to be a sense, born of hostility to Iran, that a Saudi nuclear weapon option might not be such a bad thing—in fact that it might even be useful to frighten Iran. All that can be said about such thinking is: This way lies chaos. We should move in the opposite direction, starting with barring Saudi Arabia from getting nuclear weapons.

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founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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