The last thing the Middle East needs is another country with the potential to build nuclear weapons. Yet that could happen if the United States mishandles Saudi Arabia’s plans to enter the nuclear power business and erect as many as 16 nuclear reactors for electricity generation over 25 years.
The Saudis aren’t saying they want to become the second country, after Israel, to have a nuclear arsenal in the increasingly unstable region. They insist the reactors would be used only to generate energy for domestic purposes, so they can rely on their huge reserves of oil to generate income from overseas.
Still, there are growing signs that the Saudis want the option of building nuclear weapons to hedge against their archrival, Iran, which had a robust nuclear program before accepting severe curbs under a 2015 deal with the United States and other major powers.
Obama administration efforts to negotiate an agreement on transferring civil nuclear technology — required before a country can buy American nuclear technology — faltered over the Saudis’ refusal to make a legally binding commitment to forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, which could be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. The United Arab Emirates made a commitment like that in its 2009 agreement, setting the nonproliferation “gold standard” for civil nuclear cooperation deals.
Now new negotiations are being pursued under a president who caters to the needs of American business and aggressively courts Saudi leaders. In theory, Mr. Trump is well-placed to cajole the Saudis to accept the gold standard. He can argue that it makes more sense for Riyadh to buy enriched fuels for the reactors from relatively low-cost foreign suppliers than to produce it in Saudi Arabia. Such an agreement will further cement ties with the United States, which has promised to protect the kingdom from its enemies.
But there are questions about what limits the Trump administration would require, and the Saudis would accept, as part of the agreement the two sides are about to start negotiating.
Insisting on strict conditions could force the Saudis to buy instead from Russia or China, which don’t impose such nonproliferation rules, or from France and South Korea, thus penalizing a moribund American nuclear industry eager for the lucrative new business. Westinghouse and other American-based companies are discussing a consortium to bid on the multibillion-dollar project.
However, a failure to incorporate crucial restrictions in any deal would leave the Saudis free to repurpose the technology for nuclear weapons. That would undercut decades of American-led efforts to prevent the spread of these arms.
The United States has long been a leader in nuclear technology with its sales to other countries governed by bilateral civil nuclear agreements that require adherence to nine nonproliferation criteria.
They include guarantees that none of the nuclear materials provided by the United States will be used for nuclear explosives, that none of the technology or classified data will be transferred to third parties without American consent, and that the country involved in the agreement will not enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.
But Saudi officials are still insisting that they have a right to enrichment and reprocessing under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which guaranteed nations access to such technologies if they forsake nuclear weapons.
If these disagreements stalemate negotiations, the United States could lose the opportunity to impose any nonproliferation, nuclear security and nuclear safety conditions on the Saudi program at all.
That is why a compromise proposed by Robert Einhorn, a former American nuclear negotiator, may be worth considering, but only if efforts to set stricter standards fail. It would require the Saudis to make a legally binding commitment to forgo enrichment and reprocessing for 15 years, not indefinitely, thus kicking tough questions down the road.
Ultimately, Congress must assert its right to have the final say on a deal, and set strict conditions if the administration does not. Those should include intrusive inspections of Saudi nuclear facilities, similar to those Iran has accepted.
Given Mr. Trump’s flip attitude toward nuclear weapons, Congress’s responsibility affects the nuclear future of not just Saudi Arabia, but the decisions that Turkey, Egypt and other countries make about acquiring nuclear power. Lawmakers need to put protections in place so more countries don’t edge closer to having nuclear weapons.