As President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia fades from memory, one neglected matter that’s almost certain to make news later is Riyadh’s renewed interest in nuclear energy.
As I note in the attached piece “Will Seoul and Washington make Riyadh nuclear-weapons ready?” Riyadh is still eager to buy nuclear reactors. Only weeks before President Biden’s visit, Saudi Arabia invited Russia, China, and South Korea to bid on the construction of two large nuclear power plants. Seoul, which just finished building its fourth power reactor for the United Arab Emirates, is the odds-on favorite to win.
Besides offering a quality product and reliable financing unencumbered with political strings, South Korean nuclear cooperation, though, comes with an additional advantage: It explicitly permits Riyadh to enrich any uranium it might receive from Seoul up to 20 percent without securing any additional permissions.
Highly enriched uranium is defined as uranium ore that contains U235 at levels of 20 percent or higher. The amount of effort it takes to produce 20 percent enriched uranium represents nearly 90 percent of the effort needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. That’s why the United States and other like-minded nations objected to Iran stockpiling large amounts of 20 percent enriched uranium.
UAE law currently prohibits it from enriching uranium or chemically separating plutonium from spent fuel. Washington insisted on this as a condition for the Emirates buying South Korean and US nuclear technology. It’s a tough standard but the correct one to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, there’s been no discussion about what conditions, if any, Washington or Seoul might impose on any nuclear transfers to Saudi Arabia. That’s a mistake and a question Seoul, the US, Congress and the Executive need to address now.
July 26, 2022
Author: Henry Sokolski
By Henry Sokolski
Iran’s nuclear program, oil, and human rights dominated Biden’s much-anticipated first presidential trip to the Middle East earlier this month. But there is one topic President Biden chose not to showcase during his visit with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud—the Kingdom’s most recent interest in nuclear energy—and the nuclear weapons proliferation concerns that come with it.
Only weeks before Biden’s visit, Riyadh invited South Korea, Russia, and China to bid on the construction of two large power reactors. On that bid, Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) is the most likely winner. KEPCO has already built four reactors for Riyadh’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, and is the only vendor to bring a power reactor of its own design online in the Middle East. South Korea also is the only government to provide reliable, generous financing, free of political strings—something neither Moscow nor Beijing can credibly claim.
And then, there’s this: Any Korean sale would be covered by a generous 2011 South Korean nuclear cooperative agreement with Riyadh that explicitly authorizes the Saudis to enrich any uranium it might receive from Seoul. Under the agreement, Riyadh could enrich this material by up to 20 percent, without having to secure Seoul’s prior consent.
That should set off alarm bells.
Do the Saudis want a bomb? In 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” As if to prove the point, late in 2020, word leaked that the Saudis have been working secretly with the Chinese to mine and process Saudi uranium ore. These are steps toward enriching uranium—and a possible nuclear weapon program.
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