Why does Saudi Arabia want to spend billions to enrich its own uranium?
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reaffirmed the kingdom’s desire to keep up with Iran’s nuclear program, casting doubt on Saudi claims that it seeks to mine and enrich uranium solely for civilian use and reawakening fears of a Middle East nuclear arms race.
In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mohammed said that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
The comments on the eve of Mohammed’s visit to the United States are likely to complicate the Trump administration’s efforts to revise U.S. terms for a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, which is needed before U.S. firms can sell nuclear reactors, technology or materials to other nations. Saudi Arabia has said it intends to build two reactors near the Persian Gulf and is weighing five proposals, including one from a consortium led by Westinghouse and Fluor.
The cooperation accord is known as a 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act.
“With the comments made by Crown Prince Mohammed, it’s hard to imagine that the United States — or any other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory — could engage in any nuclear trade or cooperation with Saudi Arabia, making the issue of the 123 agreement a moot point,” said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear nonproliferation and terrorism expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected — nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it’s about geopolitical power,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia.”
Opposition has also come from Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Capitol earlier this month and said he was against a cooperation agreement that would allow the Saudis to enrich uranium. Israel is widely believed to possess a nuclear arsenal, but it refuses to confirm or deny any claims.
In recent months, other senior Saudi officials have made comments similar to Mohammed’s, asserting that Saudi Arabia cannot accept nuclear cooperation terms that would be worse than those given Iran under the accord forged by President Barack Obama and backed by international powers — which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions.
Iran’s leaders have repeatedly asserted that they do not seek nuclear arms and claim Iran only seeks to use its uranium enrichment labs to produce lower-enriched material for use in reactors.
But the crown prince’s comments deepened fears among nonproliferation experts already concerned about Saudi Arabia’s insistence that any nuclear reactor deal include uranium enrichment and reprocessing of used fuel rods — each of which could be diverted to produce weapons-grade material.
One reason experts have worried is that there is no economic rationale behind acquiring such capabilities.
With the world awash in reactor-ready uranium, the radioactive fuel rods are a tiny portion of the cost of nuclear power, and spending billions of dollars on enrichment equipment would be wasteful, experts say.
Thanks to the uranium glut, the $21.75 price for a pound of uranium is languishing near all-time lows. Companies that have enrichment technology don’t want to share it and create a new competitor. And because the companies selling uranium span the globe and political divides, it is unlikely that the security of supply would be a problem for Saudi Arabia.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private nonprofit group. “Building an indigenous uranium enrichment and reprocessing program for spent fuel is incredibly costly, in the tens of billions of dollars.” Citing the oversupply of uranium, he added “there is no economic rationale” for a Saudi program.
The Saudi government says it needs its own enriched uranium or reprocessed fuel to secure sources of supply for commercial electricity reactors.
Kimball dismissed that concern. “There is an ample nuclear fuel supply,” he said. “If Saudi Arabia is genuinely interested in generating electricity from nuclear reactors, they will have no problem buying nuclear fuel from any number of suppliers.”
Kimball said some suppliers, such as Russia, have made lifetime uranium supplies part of their nuclear construction and service contracts.
Ali Ahmad, director of a program on energy policy and security at the American University of Beirut, said that uranium prices have dropped at an average 14 percent annual rate since 2009.
The shutdown of all 54 reactors in Japan and eight in Germany immediately after the 2011 tsunami reduced demand for uranium. Although China is still building plants, and Japan reopened a number of reactors, Germany and the United States plan to close others.
Many of the world’s enrichment ventures have slashed output because of weak demand. In December, Kazatomprom, the Kazakh state uranium company, announced plans to reduce production by 20 percent over the next three years. The Canadian company Cameco said it would shut down its McArthur River plant for 10 months this year.
Meanwhile, the French nuclear company Areva shelved an enrichment plant planned for Idaho, which was expected to cost over $2 billion. Despite a loan guarantee from the Energy Department for part of the cost, Areva never broke ground because of the low price of nuclear fuel.
“My guess is that there won’t be an enrichment plant for a while,” said Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It would cost billions, and no one is going to sell them the technology.” Besides, he added, uranium accounts for as little as 1 percent of a nuclear plant’s operating costs.
Saudi officials say that the mining of its own uranium is a sovereign right. It is working with China’s National Nuclear to begin exploration.
The viability of any mining venture will depend on the quality of uranium ore and its depth from the surface. Ahmad said that Jordan thought it had commercially viable uranium reserves, but the French company Areva explored and concluded that the quality wasn’t good enough.
“Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the nonprofit Arabia Foundation. “Unlike other countries, it would like to commercialize its uranium deposits.”