U S firms attracted by Saudi Arabia’s plans to build nuclear reactors are pushing Washington to restart talks with Riyadh on an agreement to help the kingdom develop atomic energy, three industry sources said.
One of the sources also said Riyadh had told Washington it does not want to forfeit the possibility of one day enriching uranium —a process that can have military uses— though this is a standard condition of US civil nuclear cooperation pacts, Reuters reported.
“They want to secure enrichment if down the line they want to do it,” the source, who is in contact with Saudi and US officials, said before US Energy Secretary Rick Perry holds talks in Riyadh early next week.
Another of the industry sources said Saudi Arabia and the United States had already held initial talks about a nuclear cooperation pact.
US officials and Saudi officials responsible for nuclear energy issues declined to comment for this article. The sources did not identify the US firms involved in the lobbying.
Under Article 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, a peaceful cooperation agreement is required for the transfer of nuclear materials, technology and equipment.
In previous talks, Saudi Arabia has refused to sign up to any agreement with the United States that would deprive the kingdom of the possibility of one day enriching uranium.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer, says it wants nuclear power solely for peaceful uses —to produce electricity at home so that it can export more crude. It has not yet acquired nuclear power or enrichment technology.
Riyadh sent a request for information to nuclear reactor suppliers in October in a first step towards opening a multi-billion-dollar tender for two nuclear power reactors, and plans to award the first construction contract in 2018.
Reuters has reported that Westinghouse is in talks with other US-based companies to form a consortium for the bid. A downturn in the US nuclear industry makes business abroad increasingly valuable for American firms.
Reactors need uranium enriched to around 5% purity but the same technology in this process can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to a higher, weapons-grade level. This has been at the heart of Western and regional concerns over the nuclear work of Iran, which has mastered the uranium enrichment cycle.
Industry sources and analysts say the main reason that Saudi Arabia, which has waged a bloody war against impoverished Yemen since 2015, wants to leave the door open to enrichment in the future may be political —to ensure the kingdom has the same possibility of enriching uranium as Iran.
Under a nuclear deal Iran signed in 2015 with world powers —but which US President Donald Trump has said he might pull the United States out of— Tehran can enrich uranium to around the level needed for commercial power-generation.
Potential Problem for Washington
Saudi Arabia’s position poses a potential problem for the United States, which has strengthened ties with the kingdom under Trump.
Washington usually requires a country to sign a nuclear cooperation pact —known as a 123 agreement— that forfeits steps in fuel production with potential bomb-making uses.
“Doing less than this would undermine US credibility and risk the increased spread of nuclear weapons capabilities to Saudi Arabia and the region,” said David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
It would be “a huge change of policy” for Washington to allow Saudi Arabia the right to enrich uranium, said Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Americas office at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
“Applying the ‘golden standard’ of not allowing enrichment or preprocessing (of spent fuel) has held up a 123 agreement with Jordan for many years, and has been a key issue in US nuclear cooperation with South Korea,” said Fitzpatrick, a nuclear policy expert.
“Perhaps Saudi Arabia is testing the Trump administration and seeing if the administration would be amenable to fewer restrictions in a 123 agreement,” the ISIS’s Albright said.