A small, experimental nuclear reactor being constructed by Argentina’s state-backed nuclear company INVAP at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh has spurred renewed concerns about Saudi leadership’s intentions for the program, CNN reported on Sunday, even as its development zips along at a brisk pace.
According to CNN, former director for nuclear inspections at the International Atomic Energy Agency Robert Kelley described progress on the reactor (just three months since it was announced) as “expeditious” and said it could operational within “nine months to a year.” However, he downplayed concerns that the reactor in Riyadh could be used to create a nuclear weapon, telling CNN it would take a century to enrich enough plutonium.
“It’s the size of a waste basket and has no strategic importance,” Kelley said, describing its intent as training scientists.
Progress on the site has been confirmed by satellite imagery, CNN wrote.
The project is phase one of an ambitious Saudi program which is soliciting bids to build full-scale nuclear reactors—the subject of which has become contentious as Democratic members of Congress have claimed Donald Trump’s administration has tried to bypass mandatory congressional review and failed to abide by specific non-proliferation guidelines while pursuing a deal to export U.S. nuclear technology there.
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CNN wrote that the Saudi nuclear program is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, which is intended to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and lure high-tech and services businesses into the country:
Next, the Saudis want to build two commercial reactors and are shopping around for contractors. There are five finalists, according to the Saudis: Westinghouse from the US, as well as companies from China, Russia, France and South Korea. Saudi Arabia has also signed agreements with the China National Nuclear Corporation for exploring uranium reserves in the Kingdom.
The IAEA sent a team to Saudi Arabia in July last year to review the development of its nuclear power infrastructure. That mission concluded that the Kingdom is “well placed to finalize its plans for construction of its first nuclear power plant” through partnerships with countries that have nuclear power industries.
According to CNN, IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov confirmed earlier this year Saudi Arabia has made “significant progress” towards building an infrastructure for nuclear power, while Kelley said the next phase will require intensive international inspections. The AFP recently reported that the IAEA is asking the Saudis to move from a largely unregulated small-quantities protocol to a more comprehensive agreement with more safeguards (which it may need to resupply the facility with fuel).
“Saudi Arabia has been dragging its feet for 30 years on getting meaningful agreements in place; but the [low power research reactor] means they MUST abide by international rules,” Kelley told the AFP. “Argentina is not going to supply the nuclear fuel if they don’t.”
Concern over Saudi nuclear ambitions has mounted both because of the ruling monarchy’s human rights record—which could charitably be called awful, and in recent memory includes a brutal war in Yemen, crackdowns on real and perceived dissent, and the torture and murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi—and because bin Salman, the de facto day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, has stated it will promptly acquire nuclear weapons if regional rival Iran does. Iran, for its part, has warned it has noticed some of its neighbors with a “proven black record of supporting terrorist movements” are working on “suspicious nuclear projects.”
The Trump administration has argued that if U.S. companies do not win contracts there, the Saudis will turn to Russia or China, which it says have less interest in non-proliferation. On the other hand, Trump has regularly bragged about the sheer amount of weapons the U.S. is selling the Saudi military and security forces, and Democratic members of Congress are reportedly worried the rush to win contracts has more to do with enriching U.S. companies lobbying, and with ties to, the White House.
Recent reports indicated that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry had signed secret authorizations allowing six U.S. companies to conduct preliminary work on the reactor-building program. Per the Hill, some legislators are furious that these deals were signed without first obtaining what is known as a 123 agreement (which would mandate the Saudis abide by restrictions preventing them from using the technology for military purposes), which the Saudis have resisted, or consulting Congress, which they believe is required under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
In an interview with CBS on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration would “not permit [Saudi Arabia becoming a nuclear-armed nation] to happen. We will not permit that to happen anywhere in the world. The President understands the threat of proliferation. We will never write a $150 million check to the Saudis and hand them over the capacity to threaten Israel and the United States with nuclear weapons, never.”