Senators press Trump for answers on Saudi nuclear capabilities

August 21, 2020, 10:08AMNuclear News

Van Hollen

Amid news stories of possible undeclared nuclear facilities in Saudi Arabia and China's involvement with them (see here and here, for instance), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) on August 19 led a bipartisan group of senate colleagues in sending a letter to President Trump requesting more information on the matter.

Cosigners included Sens. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), Susan Collins (R., Maine), Tim Kaine (D., Va.), and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.).

From the letter: “We write to express concern with recent media reports that Saudi Arabia is building secret nuclear facilities, evidence that its nuclear program is rapidly progressing in the absence of strong international safeguards. Riyadh’s apparent lack of transparency regarding its nuclear efforts, coupled with a growing ballistic missile program, poses a serious threat to the international nonproliferation regime and United States objectives in the Middle East.”

Specifics: The lawmakers pointed to an August 4 Wall Street Journal article stating that Saudi Arabia has constructed a publicly undisclosed uranium milling plant with help from China. “Given plans to extract uranium domestically and a desire to possess enrichment capabilities, Saudi Arabia is positioning itself to develop the front end of the fuel cycle,” the senators said. “These technologies, if unchecked, would give Riyadh a latent capacity to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.”

The letter also noted that Saudi officials have resisted signing an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has publicly stated his nation’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons to guard against Iran. These developments, according to the letter, “throw into question the peaceful intentions of Riyadh’s nuclear program and its commitment to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

What they want to know: Van Hollen et al. closed their letter with a request for a briefing on the following topics by September 15:

The state of Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile program and efforts to develop nuclear fuel cycle technologies, including assistance from other countries.

The state of U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation negotiations.

The status of Saudi Arabia’s Small Quantities Protocol with the IAEA and whether or not Saudi Arabia has indicated if it will rescind it and fully implement its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.

The state of U.S. bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts to encourage Saudi Arabia to sign and implement an Additional Protocol with the IAEA.

The state of U.S. discussions with China, as well as other foreign countries pursuing nuclear cooperation and security agreements with Saudi Arabia, regarding Saudi Arabia’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The state of U.S. discussions in multilateral forums, including the IAEA, the NPT, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime, regarding Saudi Arabia’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Background: Saudi Arabia has expressed interest for more than a decade in developing a nuclear energy program. In 2008, for example, a U.S.-Saudi memorandum of understanding was signed declaring the countries’ intentions to cooperate on nuclear activities in the fields of medicine, industry, and electricity production. Saudi Arabia has entered into civil nuclear agreements with several other countries as well, including Argentina, China, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

In July 2017, the Saudi cabinet approved the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project, which included plans to build large and small nuclear reactors for electricity production and desalination amid a larger effort to diversify the Saudi economy and expand the use of renewable energy. Later that year, the Saudi government issued a solicitation to procure its first nuclear power reactor and invited China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to bid on the contract. Saudi authorities expressed hopes of signing contracts for reactor construction in 2018 but did not do so.

Nonproliferation experts have expressed concerns that a civilian nuclear program could enable Saudi Arabia to develop a capability to produce nuclear-weapons material, given that senior Saudi officials have stated publicly that there could be conditions under which the country would seek to acquire nuclear weapons or develop a nuclear weapons program.

For more on the status of U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation, see this recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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