Secret Sites in the Desert: The Dangers of Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Hedging
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is building two clandestine facilities with Chinese assistance, which Western intelligence agencies suspect may have nuclear applications. The secretive construction of these sites raises questions about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions, as well as concerns about Beijing’s role in supplying sensitive nuclear technology abroad.
The two facilities may be part of a Saudi attempt to develop fuel cycle capabilities, which in turn would enable the kingdom to enrich uranium domestically. Enrichment could give the Saudis the option to produce nuclear weapons, if paired later with nuclear weaponization efforts and a missile delivery system.
Saudi Arabia’s incremental nuclear advances run counter to U.S. interests in the Middle East, particularly regarding Washington’s efforts to cease Iran’s uranium enrichment program and verifiably end Tehran’s work on nuclear weapons. Were Saudi Arabia able to enrich uranium, Iran would be less likely to agree to future restrictions on its own nuclear program. Saudi enrichment could also beget a cascade of regional proliferation, with countries seeing value in procuring nuclear know-how or material to offset gains made by Tehran or Riyadh.
Obscure Nuclear Sites and Activities
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times broke stories on August 4 and 5, about the two suspicious Saudi sites. A U.S. intelligence report leaked to the media appears to be their main source of information.
The Wall Street Journal report alleges that one facility is for the production of uranium ore concentrate. The plant is located in a remote desert near the Saudi city of al-Ula. Chemical refinement of natural uranium ore, a raw material mined from the earth produces uranium ore concentrate (U3O8), also known as yellowcake. This refinement is an early step in the nuclear fuel cycle.
The second site, described by the New York Times, is also located in an isolated area, near the town of al-Uyaynah. According to the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security, which was cited in the New York Times report, the facility appears to have signatures of a uranium conversion plant.
If Saudi technicians produced uranium ore concentrate at the first site, then they could send the material to the second site to undergo chemical processing for conversion to uranium hexafluoride (UF6). Such natural UF6, which can be used to fabricate fuel for reactors, is also a prerequisite for enrichment—the process that can be used either to purify uranium to levels needed for certain reactors or to create fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia has no operating reactors, but in the past made plans to construct more than a dozen. At least two will be large-scale units for electricity generation. If Riyadh successfully carries out such plans and inaugurates reactors requiring enriched uranium fuel, then it still would not require domestic uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium is widely available on the international market at a low cost.
The kingdom is not currently known to be working with foreign partners to develop gas centrifuges, the most common means of enriching uranium. Nor have the Saudis disclosed concrete plans for enrichment. However, in 2010, the Lebanon-based Daily Star reported that a Finnish consultancy, on behalf of the Saudis, investigated the feasibility of Riyadh developing enrichment under a “national vision and high-level strategy in the area of nuclear and renewable energy.”
China could theoretically supply Saudi Arabia with uranium enrichment technology. Riyadh is also suspected of having bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development and could seek technical expertise or supplies from Islamabad.
If the kingdom sought nuclear weapons, absent significant turn-key assistance, it would still require work on learning to weaponize the fissile material and assemble it in a nuclear device, and then mounting it on a delivery vehicle such as a ballistic missile. Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia twice purchased surface-to-surface missiles from Beijing, once in the late 1980s, and again in the mid-2000s.
In 2014, the Saudis publicly paraded the initial batch of missiles, likely sending a message about its concerns over nuclear diplomacy between Iran and America. Moreover, in 2019, multiple outlets revealed that Saudi Arabia was receiving assistance from China to grow its missile capabilities, assistance which could include technology used in an alleged ballistic missile production facility.
With its clandestine facilities, Saudi Arabia is likely hedging against a future nuclear weapons-equipped Iran. In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman stated that Saudi Arabia would emulate its regional rival if it developed nuclear weapons. Thus, it is probable that the Saudis are gradually laying the technical infrastructure to match Iran’s advanced fuel cycle capabilities.
Saudi Arabia’s official rationales for nuclear power are entirely civil in nature, yet questionable given the existence of vast domestic oil supplies. Riyadh states that it seeks to diversify energy sources, conserve oil, and desalinize seawater.
The kingdom has inked nuclear-related agreements or memoranda of understandings with multiple countries that cover everything from reactor purchases to nuclear waste management, radioisotope production to development of national nuclear regulatory legislation, and consultancy assistance. Potential and current partners include France, Argentina, China, South Korea, Hungary, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and even the United States.
Domestic nuclear power is also part of the kingdom’s widely advertised “Vision 2030” program. For example, in 2017, the nation’s atomic energy establishment, King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, highlighted three important components of the country’s nuclear program: development of the nuclear fuel cycle; construction of large nuclear power plants; and building of Small Modular Reactors, involving both “joint IP ownership with [South] Korea on SMART technology” for a three-year period and a “long-term strategic partnership with China” related to High-Temperature Gas Reactors.
In April 2019, Bloomberg News published satellite images showing that the Saudis were nearing completion of a small, thirty kilowatt-thermal power research reactor, built with the assistance of an Argentinian company, INVAP. The reactor would not generate electricity but would be used to study scientific applications of nuclear energy. Saudi Arabia denied that the facility would be misused for proliferation purposes.
As noted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear proliferation watchdog, Argentina will not be able to supply the reactor with fuel until the kingdom concludes comprehensive safeguards and subsidiary arrangements with the IAEA and submits the facility to inspections. The reactor unit would not be of concern for the production of plutonium, since it would produce only small quantities annually.
The negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—in 2015 was widely perceived in the region, including by Riyadh, as abandoning precedent set by previous UN resolutions that demanded a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The JCPOA provided temporary constraints on Iran’s enrichment capabilities while permitting their medium-term expansion, and ultimately, international legitimization of the program. In 2014, former intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud publicly stated that the Saudis would want enrichment if a nuclear deal were to acquiesce to the continuation of Iran’s enrichment program.
Saudi Arabia does not yet have adequate safeguards in place to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear material and peaceful nature of nuclear activities on its territory. The absence of such safeguards, despite the reports about the existence of new and significant nuclear activities, is a worrying sign that Riyadh intends to obscure the nature of its nuclear activities for as long as possible.
Saudi Arabia has ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and as such, Riyadh is required to have a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the IAEA. In 2005, the Saudis concluded a CSA, but also an IAEA agreement called a “Small Quantities Protocol,” or SQP. An SQP holds in abeyance several vital provisions of the CSA. According to the IAEA, SQPs are typically implemented by countries with “minimal or no nuclear material and no nuclear material in a ‘facility.’”
There are immediate issues with the Saudi approach to safeguards. The version of the SQP signed by Riyadh is outdated and pauses implementation of many more provisions of the CSA than does a revised SQP, such as notifying the IAEA as soon as a decision is made to build a nuclear facility and enabling it to carry out initial verification activities that would permit a deeper understanding of a country’s plans. Ideally, Riyadh should already have its CSA in force to adequately safeguard the newly-discovered facilities, the Argentinian reactor, and any other nuclear facility.
A trigger for the CSA will be if Saudi Arabia soon plans to inaugurate the Argentinian reactor. If the kingdom introduces or produces nuclear material on its territory, then it must bring into force the CSA and conclude subsidiary arrangements for all related facilities. It also must notify the IAEA six months before the introduction of nuclear material.
In addition, unlike its neighbor the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United States has not been able to convince Saudi Arabia to conclude a “123 Agreement” with the United States for civil nuclear supply under which it forswears domestic uranium enrichment or reprocessing of plutonium—two key processes that can make fissile material for nuclear weapons. A forswearing of enrichment and reprocessing is known as the “gold standard” of non-proliferation agreements.